Skip to main content

Early Planning can Make or Break a Political Campaign: Vote Leave Case Study

"You can't fatten a pig on market day"  Lynton Crosby

Tim Shipman's definitive account of the Brexit campaign 'All Out War' provides many lessons for political campaigners. One of the key lessons I took away from the book was the importance of early preparation and planning.

Over a year before the referendum Steve Baker of Vote Leave identified five early battles the campaign had to win. He also developed detailed action plans for each of these areas. This planning, and the early actions taken in 2015, were possibly decisive in winning the referendum.

The five areas that the Vote Leave campaign mapped out in detail with action plans were as follows.

The Phrasing of the Referendum Question

Baker knew from ICM polling the importance of the referendum question.

If voters were asked: 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?' 59 per cent said yes.

If voters were asked: 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?' only 55 per cent opted to remain.

A four percent difference. Thus Baker petitioned the Electoral Commission arguing strongly for remain/leave and not yes/no. The Electoral Commission subsequently changed the question set out in the Bill to 'Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?'

The change was not entirely due to Baker, as the Commission conducted its own research, but this change was critical as it could have been worth up to 4 per cent to Vote Leave.

The Timing of the Referendum

The Cameron team saw advantages in holding the referendum on the same day as the local elections, and the elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, namely 5th May 2016. The wording of the EU Referendum Bill allowed the government to combine the vote with any election.

The Vote Leave campaign was concerned that Conservative activists would deliver double sided campaign literature promoting a Tory vote on one side and a Remain vote on the other. The eurosceptics teamed up with the Labour Party, who were also fearful it would boost turnout in Tory areas, and the threat of a parliamentary rebellion forced the Government into a U-turn.


Following the formal start of an election campaign government officials are forbidden from doing anything that might influence the election result. In the small print of the Bill was a plan to scrap purdah for the Referendum. This would allow Cameron to use government resources to support the Remain campaign.  The eurosceptic Conservatives decided this was so important that they would mount their first major rebellion against a Tory government in 23 years. In September 2015 the government lost a parliamentary vote on the issue by 312 votes to 285, and purdah was reinstated.

This change was seen as critical. Shipman quotes Paul Stephenson: "If there was no purdah, we'd have been screwed."

Neutralising the Conservative Party Machine

The fourth early task was to stop Conservative Party campaigning resources being used for Remain. Baker recruited Steve Bell, the president of National Convention of the Conservative Party and Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 committee to successfully argue the case for the Conservative Party remaining neutral in the Referendum.

This decision had two consequences. First, the Remain campaign lost £7m to spend, the amount the Conservative Party would have been permitted by the Electoral Commission. Second, it meant Tory MPs could not use their own canvassing data to target voters during the referendum.

Collective Responsibility

Cameron had insisted that ministers were bound by collective responsibility and would have to resign if they wanted to campaign against him in the referendum. The eurosceptics planned a series of ministerial resignations which would damage Cameron unless he relented. Grayling was first, telling Cameron he was going to declare for Leave and was happy to resign if Cameron wanted him to. At this point Cameron relented and said he would allow ministers to campaign for Leave.


The recognition that these five areas would be crucial and the early planning, over a year before the referendum took place, boosted the Vote Leave campaign. The lesson is that it is never too early to do detailed planning for a political campaign.