EU referendum night drama points to clear political divide
After an occasionally chaotic referendum day came an even more confusing results night. It began with Nigel Farage, a leading figure in the campaign for Britain to leave the , more or less conceding that his side had lost. That was, however, just the beginning.
Farage had appeared swayed by a post-poll survey predicting a small if comfortable victory for the remain camp, as well as private research by City firms that said much the same thing; there was also a mini-rally for the pound sterling.
But as the first UK results began to come in – after the expected massive remain vote by Gibraltar’s tiny electorate – things went into reverse. First, Newcastle only just plumped for remain, with 50.7% of votes, confounding predictions of a bigger margin. Then came Sunderland, with the whopping 61% leave tally much bigger than had been anticipated. Farage rescinded his concession and began to appear on TV looking chipper again.
At the same time the pound plummeted as the currency markets went into rapid reverse, falling by more than 8% against the dollar. Rupert Harrison, George Osborne’s former economic adviser, said such financial fluctuations were to be expected: “We’ve had a lot of predictions during the campaign, the economics profession amazingly united saying this would be a negative shock to the British economy and I think we are seeing indications of that in these market moves tonight.”
At an official end-of-poll party for the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, TV footage showed faces drop as people took in the news. The mood wasn’t about to get any more cheery.
As morning dawned, the two sides were locked at almost 50-50, with no exit polls to guide predictions. Exit polls at general elections are extrapolated from changes on previous results, and the UK has not had a similar referendum since the 1975 vote on EU membership, making one impossible here.
Two things did initially appear certain. First, a huge number of voters had taken part, with national turnout anticipated to hit around 70%, above the 66% of the 2015 general election day. This came despite heavy overnight rain in London and parts of southern England that forced a handful of polling stations to move to drier ground, even as much of the rest of the country enjoyed a sunny day.
The second was that the UK appeared utterly split over its future with the European Union, both in terms of the absolute numbers and by region.
Time after time, results from more economically deprived regions saw strong votes for . Of the first eight regions in the north-east of England, seven voted heavily to leave the EU. In Hartlepool, the seaside town that saw a Ukip surge at the recent local elections, 69.5% voted to leave.
In , the first 10 local authorities to declare all returned in favour of leave.
In contrast, Scottish voters were notably in favour of staying in the EU, even though some turnouts were lower than expected – just 54% in Glasgow. Liverpool opted for remain by 58% to 42%, while in inner London the margins were greater still, with a series of boroughs seeing 75% or more voters choose to stay. Oxford recorded a 71% remain vote.
But as the night went on the votes started, incrementally but definitely, to pile up that bit more for leave. Amid the huge regional polarisation, with stronger votes than anticipated for both sides in their heartland areas, the extra votes gained for remain in places such as inner London appeared to be more than cancelled out elsewhere.
By about 3am, Arron Banks, the businessman who bankrolled the unofficial Leave.EU camp, was telling reporters he believed his side had won. Shortly afterwards, Labour sources started to brief the media that the “working assumption” was now that the UK was set to begin moves to quit the European Union after 43 years of membership. Leave started to edge ahead in overall votes, the lead nudging past 500,000 towards a million.
Any slight hope that a bitterly fought campaign might end in some approximation of harmony were soon dashed, with recriminations beginning within Labour, which faced criticism it had not campaigned sufficiently for continued EU membership. The shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, defended his leader, saying Jeremy Corbyn was aware the British public was “basically Eurosceptic to a certain extent but believes remain is the best thing”.
Elsewhere, a Labour source said the SNP was partly to blame for a low turnout in , because of its “lacklustre” campaign. Most blunt of all was Labour’s shadow leader of the House of Commons, Chris Bryant, who was at the remain party, as was the former leader Ed Miliband. Bryant was quoted as saying of his former boss: “I might go and punch him because he’s a tosspot and he left the party in the state it’s in.”
The looming possibility of British departure from the EU also prompted renewed talk of independence in Wales and Scotland. Leanne Wood, the Plaid Cymru leader, said Brexit would likely prove a boost to her separatist party: “I’ve said all along it was in Wales’s best interest to stay in the but you must always look for opportunities.”
Alex Salmond, Scotland’s former first minister, said departure from the EU could bring a second referendum on independence, led by his successor as SNP leader. “Scotland looks like it is gong to vote solidly remain,” he said. “If there was a leave vote in England, dragging us out the EU, I’m quite certain Nicola Sturgeon would implement the SNP manifesto.”
While the picture was expected to become clear as areas declared during the night, the official result, to be announced in Manchester, was not expected until about 7am on Friday.
The sense of suspicion among voters was heightened by sporadic reports of or bringing their own pen, in the apparent fear that their pencil cross could be changed. East Northamptonshire council subsequently warned people to make sure any pen used would not smudge, as this might invalidate their vote.
Police in Chichester, West Sussex, were called to a polling station by a volunteer following reports that a woman handing out pens to voters was causing a disturbance. She was spoken to but police said there was no need for action.
During polling day on Thursday, some voters faced heavier than usual odds to cast their ballots, mainly in London, where . Kingston-upon-Thames council moved two polling stations in Chessington and New Malden.
The weather later led to severe delays on some train lines in and around London, sparking concern on the part of some commuters that they would struggle to get home in time to vote.
Elsewhere, voters in some areas said they were turned away from polling booths after being told that their names were not on the register, despite having seemingly registered weeks ago.
They included Becky Timmons, who told the Guardian that she and her husband received polling cards after registering in September, but only he was able to vote. “When I went along and said my name and address they said that I was not on the list,” said Timmons, from Campton, Bedfordshire.
“Then the official said, ‘oh, we have actually had three other people like this, so let us check.’ They phoned up the council but I was still unable to vote. Then she suggested it was some sort of computer error.”
A spokesperson for the Electoral Commission said that it was not aware of any major problems being reported in relation to voting.
One place where people definitely could not vote was the Glastonbury festival in Somerset, which had no polling station, meaning any of the 180,000 attendees hoping to have their voice heard would have had to have arranged a postal or proxy vote in advance.
Feelings were running high at times at the festival, even among younger people, traditionally among the less likely groups to use their vote. Tom Porter, 27, from Wolverhampton, arrived at Glastonbury saying it had been the topic of conversation on the coach trip there with friends. “A lot of people we spoke to gave us a bollocking for not voting in, because we all didn’t vote,” he added.