On the morning of June 24, 2016, Britons woke up to a new reality—and to what, for many of them, surely felt like a new and unfamiliar country. A day earlier, 52 percent of the U.K. electorate had unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union in a historic referendum, a result that had blindsided most experts. The newspaper headlines that morning reflected the general mood, which could be best described as shellshock.
“Brexit Earthquake,” declared The Times of London, succinctly capturing the emotional state of most Remain voters. “Britain breaks with Europe,” was the Financial Times’ more sober take, but the article was accompanied by a picture of then-Prime Minister David Cameron with his hand clasped over his mouth as if he were trying to hold back a sob.
To describe the pro-Brexit camp’s victory as a surprise would be a gross understatement. Over the course of four months, the underdog Vote Leave campaign, led and staffed largely by political outsiders and unknowns, outmaneuvered the combined forces of Britain’s political, cultural and economic establishment to a narrow but conclusive victory in a referendum that was only ever expected to go the other way. It was a cataclysmic moment that felt like watching the tide of history shift in real time.