The Brexit nightmare

Tom Walker imagines waking up screaming at the hard-right ascendancy following a referendum Out vote

June 16, 2016
7 min read

brexit full sizeThe left wing advocates of an Out vote were right about one thing: the immediate consequence of the vote to leave the EU was a crisis in the Tory party. In the small hours after referendum day, as the count drew to a close, David Cameron announced his resignation – and by the next morning George Osborne had been sworn in as caretaker prime minister.

That fired the starting gun on a Tory leadership contest that was at first seen as a battle between Osborne and the long-tipped Boris Johnson, with Johnson’s chances boosted by his backing for Brexit. What few saw coming, however, was the hard-right insurgency that was about to sweep the party.

UKIP – triumphant after a victory it claimed as its own – set the agenda, calling for not only the fastest possible exit but the immediate closing of the borders and a re-application process for European migrants currently living in Britain. Osborne and Johnson both made concessions to this agenda, but not enough for the Tory base, who sought a Trump-like champion.

They found one in Priti Patel – employment minister, Brexit supporter, former Referendum Party member and hard-line Thatcherite. Under the slogan ‘Make Britain Great Again’ (borrowed from Trump but also once said by Thatcher), she quickly picked up an important endorsement from Liam Fox, who declined to run himself, and gathered nominations from the 40-strong Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs.

Attacks on her past as a spin doctor for big tobacco, her vote against gay marriage and stated support for bringing back the death penalty all failed to damage her – if anything, they further motivated her fans. The grassroots connections formed during the Out campaign provided this UKIP-tinged activist base.

The story of the summer, then, was a resurgent hard right, with news bulletins dominated by a debate between the right and the even further right. Jeremy Corbyn came out with strong opposition but struggled to get much coverage amid a media narrative of ‘Britain heading right’. Meanwhile Osborne plunged in the Tory leadership polling, prompting comparisons to Labour’s failed Blairite candidate Liz Kendall.

Trade off

Once the government triggered the official two-year notice period for quitting the EU, its first priority was to use the time to negotiate an alternative trade agreement with the bloc. Far from getting us out of the ‘bosses’ club’, the government’s opening negotiating position was to keep all the pro‑corporate, neoliberal elements of EU regulations in the new treaty, but without the attached social rights – or, of course, any democratic representation in Europe’s institutions. EU leaders heralded this as a ‘grown-up approach’, as did many of the corporate bosses who had supported In purely for trade reasons, particularly in the City.

The US – despite Obama’s ‘back of the queue’ rhetoric – was also more than happy to do a TTIP-style deal with Britain, relishing the opportunity to put back in the corporate courts provisions that stalled in the EU after they proved so controversial among European campaigners.

Workers’ rights were first in the firing line, as the government announced it was scrapping parts of UK law that were off-limits in the EU. This included cutting parental leave, paid holiday and breaks, diluting employee protections and abolishing huge areas of health and safety law. The unions focused their organising energies against this attack, but the changes were too technical on the surface to spark much wider interest. The tabloids, meanwhile, celebrated ‘the end of elf and safety culture’ by organising a conkers tournament.

In the end, with an eye on the Tory leadership contest, ministers went further than expected in what they called a ‘bonfire of red tape’: a free-market fundamentalists’ programme to build a new ‘British tiger economy’ that could compete by deregulation, cutting wages and scrapping environmental regulations. Funnily enough, the promised extra funding for the NHS in the event of an exit failed to materialise.

Out takes to the streets

Soon after the referendum the recriminations began about who lost it and why. An insider account of the chaos in the official In campaign Britain Stronger in Europe was published, to general amusement. The author points out that Britain’s entire establishment and ‘dozens of expensive consultants’ all failed to notice they had named their campaign BSE – ‘and it was all downhill from there’.

The mess the establishment made of the In campaign looked much less funny a few months later, though. In the climate created by the Brexit vote, an emboldened far right stepped up its campaign against eastern Europeans, daubing Polish shops with the phrase ‘We voted out, now get out’.

This nasty campaign picked up passive support from a restive part of the public who felt that ‘Out means Out’ and were frustrated that their vote to leave the EU had had no visible effect on immigration. Keen to appease them, the Tories pulled Britain out of the European Court of Human Rights, despite it formally being separate from the EU, and reduced the already paltry number of refugees Britain had pledged to take in.

Patel’s eventual victory in the Tory leadership contest saw this trend accelerate further. Despite Jeremy Corbyn’s call for an immediate general election, her first act as prime minister was to make Nigel Farage a lord and invite him to join the government and help negotiate the terms of exit. She said this would ‘heal the wounds of the referendum and show the British people their vote is being put into action’.

The new coalition declared that Europeans living in Britain could stay, but only if they took British citizenship – by passing a citizenship test, meeting an £18,000 minimum income requirement and passing a skills assessment. While the effect was insidious rather than immediate, the rules were designed to particularly target eastern and southern Europeans. In the transition period their rights were gradually restricted, with many losing access to free NHS care.


It was not only in Britain that the right were the beneficiaries of Brexit. Britain was the first state ever to leave the EU, and the referendum result had a domino effect across Europe.

Far-right parties rose to power across the remaining EU, winning elections by pinning the blame for their countries’ economic crises on Europe and the euro, and declaring they wanted to follow Britain in leaving. Far from helping the people of Greece in their battle with EU-imposed austerity, Britain’s vote to leave boosted the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, which started symbolically flying British flags on its marches alongside the party’s swastika-esque banners.

Now, as the European Union starts to disintegrate, and xenophobic parties call the shots across the newly divided continent, many remember a little too late that it is less than a century since Europe was riven by war.

As the left exit campaigners had said, the EU had a lot of problems. Unfortunately, Brexit did nothing but hand the initiative to the right – and make everything a hell of a lot worse.

Tom Walker is Red Pepper’s web editor and is supporting Another Europe is Possible

✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill