The Sun, the bus and spurning UKIP: Stephenson breaks silence on how Brexit war was won

One year after Brexit, Paul Stephenson – former Vote Leave comms director, and founder of Hanbury Strategy – has given a candid account of the bitter struggle to take the UK out of Europe.

Paul Stephenson, former Vote Leave comms director, went on to set up Hanbury Strategy after the referendum
Paul Stephenson, former Vote Leave comms director, went on to set up Hanbury Strategy after the referendum

In a detailed interview, released for the first time, Stephenson said: “I thought we had a pretty good media game. I think we built a small but dedicated team that worked its socks off.”

Speaking to researchers from the think tank UK in a Changing Europe, based at King’s College London, he said: “I think people now say: ‘Oh, you had all these media cheerleaders who are always going to do your bidding.’ Well, that was a lot of hard work. We didn’t come in and The Sun immediately went: ‘By the way, we are definitely backing you.’ As I say, it was six months of work to get them – they were obviously predisposed to us, but there were big corporate decisions to be taken here."

In his account, which was made public by the think tank last week as part of its new Brexit Witness Archive, Stephenson revealed how Vote Leave's approach to dealing with the media was based on co-operation. “We were quick and provided a good service, which I think put us in good stead.”

He also explained his rationale behind the idea of having a campaign bus take Boris Johnson around the UK.

“My reasoning for that was they [the Britain Stronger in Europe group] are going to have the Prime Minister [David Cameron], who has the security detail, who has to be a bit removed from the people… So we want to be the people who are anti-establishment. We are rising up, and so Boris is a rock star, we want to attract loads of people. Let’s have him out with the people, and it will be fun and frolics and a bit of a roller coaster, and stuff will go wrong, but it will be a bit more real.”

Stephenson added: “You just have pictures of us out there with the people – similar to what Corbyn did the next year in the election – and you had a Prime Minister a bit removed. I think just that symbolically was very, very helpful to us."

Another crucial difference between the ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns was the way that Vote Leave decided against forming a coalition.

“Having merged with UKIP we would have tainted our brand and would have had even more infighting. All the infights that were happening between two campaigns would have just been magnified because everyone would be sat on the same board. We wouldn’t have been able to do anything quickly,” Stephenson said.

“Actually, if you look at the Remain campaign that’s basically what happened. They sacrificed clarity for a massive consensus and coalition. The stories from the guys I speak to who worked on it say it was impossible to get any decisions through because there were lots of internal arguments."

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