Britain formally left the EU on January 31 after Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivered on his general election promise and “got Brexit done”. The road ahead is uncertain and the old battle lines between Remain and Leave have been reinvented amid furious debates over whether the UK should seek an extension to the transition period beyond 2020. The country has come a long way since the referendum of 2016 and the very fact a debate exists over when Britain leaves in full, rather than if Britain leaves at all, is a clear sign of progress.
But Brexit may never have happened at all, had a last-minute amendment to the European Union Referendum Act 2015 not materialised.
Richard Howell worked on Vote Leave’s media team and was later dubbed a “genius” by both Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.
Mr Howell noticed that, after David Cameron’s Government drafted the referendum bill, there were plans within the fine-print to “push through for a very short campaign”.
The bill called for a designation process to choose the official Leave and Remain campaigns.
Writing in ‘All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’, Tim Shipman reflects on the assumption in Westminster that this would be in February 2016, when Mr Cameron returned from negotiating a proposed deal with EU leaders in Brussels.
However, Mr Howell noticed the Government had given themselves “wriggle room to delay” the process until four weeks before polling day in June.
The bill, therefore, would allow the Government to campaign for several months before the official Leave campaign had even been selected.
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It was David Cameron’s first Commons defeat since the 2015 general election, with 37 Tories defying the whip.
Mr Shipman claims in the 2017 book that the move “prevented the Prime Minister from using the power of government to grab headlines”.
Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee, later recalled the importance of the amendment.