The night Britain voted for Brexit: what it was like to report on 2016's historic referendum
On the second anniversary of Brexit, Robert Peston, Jeremy Vine and Nick Phipps reflect on the rollercoaster night that transformed British politics
On the night of 23rd June 2016, the course of British politics changed forever. Tens of millions of votes were counted in a historic EU referendum, delivering the shock result that Britain had chosen by a narrow margin to leave the European Union.
Television studios across the capital were working in overdrive to react to the result as it came in, offering coherent analysis and capturing all the events on the ground – from Nigel Farage’s impromptu victory speech to David Cameron’s resignation the morning after.
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At the beginning of the night, the pundits and the bookies had predicted a win for the Remain campaign and Farage effectively admitted defeat within minutes of the ballot closing. But by just after midnight, it was already clear that leaving the EU was a very real prospect, with the crucial Sunderland vote showing support for Leave by a huge margin of 61 per cent to 39.
Three hours later, Farage had done a u-turn and was triumphantly declaring 23rd June as British “independence day” as the pound was starting to crash. ITV was the first broadcaster to call Leave's victory at 4.35am, and at 7.20am the final result was revealed, with 51.9 per cent voting to Leave and 48.1 per cent to Remain. Precisely one hour after that, Cameron emerged from Downing Street to announce his resignation.
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Now, two years on, the government is still navigating its way through Brexit negotiations and struggling to define what a British departure from the European Union really means.
So how do the journalists in TV news studios and out on location remember that night?
Months of preparation – including countless rehearsals for the real event – went into the coverage of the EU referendum results. Ellie Harrison spoke to ITV's Robert Peston, BBC's Jeremy Vine and Sky's Nick Phipps to get a feel for what it was like to report on a vote that will reshape British politics for years to come…
(All interviews as told to Ellie Harrison)
Political editor at ITV News
I was reporting from the Remain party at the Royal Festival Hall when the results came in from Newcastle and Sunderland shortly after midnight. Both results were better for Leave than we’d anticipated and at that point this quiet and hush came over the room because they suddenly thought, ‘Crikey, this isn't going as we expected.’
When I saw the Newcastle and Sunderland results, that was the moment when I was utterly persuaded that Leave had won and my broadcasting from that point onwards was reflecting, essentially, the momentousness of Britain voting to leave the European Union.
It was very interesting that what had been a jubilant party became a very anxious, rather subdued party. They obviously couldn’t be 100% certain that they had lost because this was just one part of the country, and there were enormous numbers of votes to count in places like London, but nonetheless it was not going the way that they expected.
Then I moved across town to an unbelievably drunken Leave.EU party at Millbank Tower. They were obviously not taking anything for granted but they knew things were going more in their direction.
The big, big difference between the Leave and Remain sides was captured in their post-vote parties. On the one hand, there was something a bit buttoned-up, severe and dour about the Remain campaign all the way through: their campaign was relentlessly negative, it was all about “Project Fear” and everything that Britain would lose if we left the EU. Whereas throughout the Leave campaign there was more of a party. And therefore when you turned up on the night, inevitably their party was much more drunken and much more boisterous, and it rather captured the spirit of their campaign.
I did have one hilarious mishap that night. We had developed a very sophisticated computer model which allowed us to call the result before anybody else, and even though between midnight and one, the whole tenor of what I was saying was that Leave was likely to win, we didn’t officially call it until half four in the morning.
When I was tweeting out the official result, I got it 100% the wrong way around. Having been saying all night that it looked as though Leave was going to win, I then said, ‘And now I can officially confirm that Remain has won!’ I had to immediately put out another tweet saying, ‘Sorry! No! It’s late at night. I meant to say completely the opposite.’ It was all quite amusing.
And then, as the night rolled on and it was clear Leave had won, we then looked at the immediate political ramifications. Although David Cameron had consistently said throughout the campaign that this was not a vote of confidence in him and that he would not resign, nonetheless at about five in the morning, having talked to sources in Downing Street, we were beginning to get a sense that there could be a second quake, and that Cameron might himself stand down. And sure enough, he did.
Altogether it was one of those genuinely momentous nights. The word unique is usually misused but it was a unique reporting experience, certainly in my lifetime. An extraordinary event.
In an incredibly trivial and selfish sense, one of the things I did also think is it that I’d just made a reasonable job move. I had been the business editor and then economics editor at the BBC in the year running up to the financial crash and then the recession, and was lucky enough to have an amazing job while those incredible events were going on. And then I was political editor at ITV for an equivalent political earthquake. So I did think to myself slightly, ‘Gosh, aren’t I lucky?’
Presenter at BBC News
I got into the BBC studios at 6pm on the Thursday and didn’t leave until 10pm the following night. It was a 28-hour shift. I can't remember whether we had a 15-minute sleep at nine in the morning – there was some sort of change-over – but the trouble with that is if you lie down and sleep you're going to go into a coma, so it's actually quite dangerous. So I think we just ploughed on.
Over the last decade we've covered some incredible elections, and only Donald Trump’s victory in America was at a similar level to the EU referendum in terms of how dramatic and unpredictable it was.
We had a book prepared in advance, about 70 pages long, called "The Bible" which held all the information on the counting areas, what we knew about them and the percentages involved.
The biggest moment was right at the very start. We thought Sunderland would be pro-Brexit, but then it came in that it was really going gangbusters for Brexit so it was a big, big majority. Then Newcastle was supposed to vote decisively for Remain but it was much more finely-poised than expected. I remember thinking it was an electrifying moment and saying, ‘Oh, my goodness. What is happening here?' But the beauty of it was that it wasn't clear for several hours, so we were totally in suspense.
Once Brexit edged it outside London, the thought then throughout the night was, ‘Will London pull it back the other way?’ But in London there was this terrible storm, a really, really nasty storm in southern areas like Battersea, so some of the very Remainy areas were flooded.
On the night we reckoned that some people who were going to vote Remain after work couldn't get home or got home and it was just too much of a slog to get out again, so they just didn't vote. When the London votes came in, the Remain numbers felt underpowered – they just weren't enough to change the national picture.
I vividly remember, I think it was about ten past four in the morning, David Dimbleby just shuffled his papers and said, 'Well, that's it. We're out.' And I was 20 feet from him and I thought, 'How lucky am I? I'm in this incredible historic moment, I'm actually watching him from 20 feet away and he's just said it into the camera.' That's it, you know. Absolutely amazing. It wasn't a case of whether we could stay awake, none of us could sleep for a day afterwards.
I feel so lucky to have worked with Dimbleby, somebody who is undoubtedly one of the all-time greats, and to have done that referendum and all those elections with him. He was doing the original EU referendum in 1975. I showed Dimbleby a photo of me aged 10 on the beach just before we started and I said, ‘That's me the last time you did this programme.’ He said, 'Do you have to remind me how old I am?'
The whole experience was just absolutely monumental. It’s changed our country's history but we're not sure at the moment whether it's for good or bad, we'll have to see. I think it will take another 50 years to find out.
Editor at Sky News
You know that moment when you're on a rollercoaster and the barrier comes over your head, secures you in and you can't get out? The beginning of results night felt a bit like that. And ever since, as a journalist, it's been a rollercoaster because the Brexit story kicked off there and has shown no sign of stopping.
On the night itself, virtually everyone from Sky News was involved in some way – either in the studio or out in the field. Everyone knew it was a historic vote and people were hugely excited to be part of it. We were all aware it was going to be incredibly close, so we entered the night genuinely not sure which way it was going to go.
We had a lot of rehearsals, basically every week from the end of March to the Sunday before the referendum. It's always something you have to do, and be careful with as well, because we are rehearsing scenarios and if for whatever reason that were to leave the building, someone might see something and say, ‘Wait a minute – Sky News is saying that X has happened.'
Although useful for presenters too, rehearsals are much more for the people behind the scenes who are considering what needs to be covered, who the guests should be, and where the interesting locations are according to a Remain or Leave scenario. The reason it all looks so seamless on the night is because it has all already happened in rehearsals – but probably in the garage where all the Sky News trucks are parked, rather than a town hall.
On the day of the referendum, I got into the office at about 4.30pm in the afternoon and I left at around 8am the next morning. I might have taken a loo break for two minutes, but that was about it. I was in the news gallery from when the programme went live at about 9pm right through until 6am.
I was running on pure adrenaline. One colleague on our election team consumes about eight Diet Cokes as the night goes on, but I don't really want to eat or drink during the programme.
Editing is a bit like being a conductor of an orchestra, putting things together. Then you're always ready to react if something happens, something unexpected, like the Nigel Farage speech was something we only knew of about five or ten minutes before it happened. So you're suddenly taking a 90 degree turn because you're thinking, ‘Okay, that's the story and that's where this is going.’
On these nights, the crucial thing is that you've got to be like ducks in the pond, everyone is paddling like mad below the surface but you're serenely floating through. I remember there was a point in the night where our results system went down for two or three minutes and there was a manic effort to get it working again. We wanted to ensure that it wasn’t seen on screen, and it wasn't.
As a journalist, I feel like the referendum set up the next stage of all of our careers, we're all working on Brexit and the consequences of Brexit and we have been for two years and likely will be for much longer. It was a privilege to be a part of this event, which has so defined my day job ever since.
BBC Parliament is re-broadcasting the EU referendum results programme in its entirety on the second anniversary of the vote, 23rd June 2018, from 9.55am to 9pm