As I travelled from my constituency in Barnet to Westminster on Thursday evening, I was in a sombre mood. The ground campaign had gone well on polling day thanks to a determined team of volunteer helpers, but I felt almost certain that Leave had lost the referendum.
Throughout much of the campaign, it seemed impossible for Leave to win with the entire establishment lined up against us, along with the serried ranks of experts, economists and foreign leaders. Moreover, there is an established tendency in referendums for the “better the devil you know” option to gather support in the final stages, and we seemed to have lost momentum in the days immediately before 23 June.
So I felt a sense of grim disappointment that this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity appeared to be lost. I presented a downcast image as I negotiated my way through awkward interviews on Sky and CNN. Emerging from the LBC Iain Dale show at half past midnight, I was less certain about the outcome. By the end of an appearance on the BBC Referendum Night special at 3am it was getting harder and harder to resist the conclusion that an astonishing political insurrection was underway which was going to change the course of European history and take the UK out of a union of which it has been part for more than 40 years.
Any feeling of astonished elation was swiftly curtailed when I found myself reacting live on the Today programme to the resignation of the prime minister. David Cameron will go down in history as a great reforming prime minister. His legacy in rescuing the public finances, reviving the economy, reforming welfare, revolutionising our schools and so much more will stand the test of time. His groundbreaking response to the public inquiry report on the events of Bloody Sunday made a historic contribution to reconciliation in Northern Ireland. He is a huge loss to the Conservative party and to the country and I sincerely wish he had stayed on.
The decision to campaign to leave was not easy. I felt deeply uncomfortable taking the opposite side to a prime minister for whom I have the highest regard and to whom I owe so much for giving me the opportunity to serve in government. But when the question at stake is as fundamental as who governs this country, I felt that I had no choice. I had to campaign for the UK to become an independent self-governing democracy again, whatever the impact on my career prospects.
I did, however, try to walk the tightrope of making the case clearly and strongly for Leave, but doing so in a way which was measured and thoughtful in the face of sincerely held views of friends, colleagues and constituents on the other side.
For me, democracy was what the referendum was all about. I voted Leave to ensure that the people who make our laws are the ones we elect, the ones we can hold to account, and the ones we can kick out if they get it wrong. As part of the EU, no matter who we elect to Westminster, there are many things that we can never change. As commission president Jean-Claude Juncker put it: “There is no democratic choice against the European treaties.”
And this has happened without real popular consent. When the UK joined in the 1970s, almost nobody would have been aware of the scale of the political project envisaged by the founding fathers of the EU. Significant transfers of power have been made via a series of incremental steps, deliberately disguised as technical changes unlikely to attract widespread attention. As Jeremy Paxman put it in his excellent documentary Paxman in Brussels, British national sovereignty has gradually slipped away over time, piece by piece.We fought a civil war in this country to defend the principle that no laws shall be passed nor taxes raised except by our own elected representatives. But our membership of the EU means that we have let supreme law-making power pass to people we do not elect and we cannot remove – people who in almost all cases we cannot name and have never even heard of.
During my six years as a member of the European parliament I came to the conclusion that the European Union is unreformable. It always has been and always will be primarily a political project. It is all about creating a country called Europe. However hard we work, whatever we do, whatever we say, that will never change.
Remain supporters criticised Leave for including immigration in the campaign. They sought to portray us as negative (or worse) for doing so. I fully recognise the positive benefits migration brings and I emphasised that many times during the campaign. It is neither xenophobic nor prejudiced to want to restore democratic control over our immigration policy and the overall numbers we accept.
As a country, we must now to try to bridge divisions by listening to both leave and remain voters. As a government, we need to come together to provide stability and steer a course through the process of carving out a new relationship with our European neighbours. There is no need to plunge into tabling article 50 now, whatever Mr Juncker may want. The period of informal negotiation prior to an article 50 process will be crucial and should not be rushed. We should engage widely as we take the negotiation forward. I am particularly conscious of the need to do that in Northern Ireland where a majority voted Remain.At its simplest, the argument for Remain was the assertion that the UK is somehow too small and too weak to govern ourselves and decide our own destiny. In contrast, Leave emphasised that we are a great country, we can stand on our own two feet and we can thrive. This positive message was one of the reasons we won.
In his speech the prime minister emphasised the importance of working with the UK’s devolved administrations in this process. They will be the recipients of many of the powers we will now bring back from Europe, for example on agriculture. We also need to engage with the business community as part of our efforts to obtain the right trade deal with the rest of Europe to ensure that Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK retains its status as a hugely attractive destination for companies trading with the rest of Europe.
Ensuring that our one land border with the EU remains as open and free-flowing as it is today is also vital for Northern Ireland. So in the hours after the referendum result became clear, I discussed this issue with the Irish foreign minister, Charlie Flanagan, and with Northern Ireland’s first and deputy first ministers.
Lastly I want to reassure those who voted Remain that the people who have voted Leave are not Little Englanders who want to “pull up the drawbridge”. Brexit does not mean that we stop cooperating with our neighbours on matters of mutual concern, far from it.
We on the Leave side have a forward-looking vision of the UK engaging with the wider world as well as with Europe. The key point is that we do not need to be part of the EU – with its unelected commission, its majority votes, its predatory court, its eurozone debts, its anthem and its flag – to do this.