OXFORD, UNITED KINGDOM - APRIL 05: Lord Nigel Lawson , politician, poses for a portrait at the Oxford Literary Festival on April 5, 2011 in Oxford, England. (Photo by David Levenson/Getty Images)

A political colossus

Lord Lawson’s calm, assured leadership was pivotal in securing Brexit

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If you ask the artificial intelligence chatbot, ChatGPT, which three politicians are responsible for Brexit, it responds Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and David Cameron. 

It is not an unreasonable answer: Johnson for leading the Leave campaign and overseeing Britain’s exit from the European Union as Prime Minister, Farage for his leadership of UKIP and role in shifting public opinion towards Brexit, and Cameron for agreeing to hold a referendum in the first place. Although, reading the detailed response, I get the impression this particular AI programme would not have voted Leave.

A whole host of politicians would make a Brexit top ten

A whole host of politicians would make a Brexit top ten: Sir Bill Cash for making the constitutional and legal case over four decades; Dan Hannan for propagating the case in print and public debate over the same period; James Goldsmith for forcing John Major and Tony Blair to promise a referendum in the event of Britain joining the Euro; Douglas Carswell for forcing Cameron to pledge a referendum and for ensuring a UKIP presence in Vote Leave. 

There are also crucial figures on the centre-left who made the case for Brexit to Labour voters, such as Kate Hoey, David Owen and Gisela Stuart. But one figure is often unforgivably forgotten from the Brexit whodunnit lists: Lord Lawson of Blaby. 

Personally, having seen the whole Brexit process from early days interning at the European Foundation for Bill Cash to bringing together the Vote Leave coalition as its Chief Executive, I view Nigel Lawson as one of my top three Brexit heroes. 

Admittedly, I write this as a long-time admirer of the late Chancellor of the Exchequer who died in April this year. Somewhere in our family photo albums, from the mid-1990s when people still took films to chemists to be developed, there’s a photograph of me at my desk, writing an essay for my Politics A-Level with a stack of books. At the top of them was Lawson’s epic autobiography, The View from No. 11: Memoirs of a Tory Radical (1992). I wasn’t writing an essay about UK economic policy in the 1980s; I’d put it there deliberately, in my gauche teenage way. 

I first met Lawson when I was Chief Executive of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, when he spoke at a dinner for our supporters. He didn’t require a fee (and we didn’t pay speaker fees) but he did ask for a specific bottle of claret to be purchased for him to drink during the dinner. The claret had no discernible effect, but our guests were treated to one of the most compelling moral and economic cases for free enterprise I have ever heard. 

But on Brexit specifically, I would point to two contributions that Lawson made, both of which were essential to bringing together the Leave coalition. In May 2013 he was the first senior Conservative to come out for Brexit in an article for The Times. He argued that the economic gains “would substantially outweigh the costs”, described how the EU was a “bureaucratic monstrosity” and predicted (correctly) that Cameron’s renegotiation would be “inconsequential”. 

Lawson’s intervention ten years ago was a galvanising moment. Despite Cameron’s promise of a referendum in January 2013, Brexit still felt in many ways like a fringe position. No senior Conservative was openly advocating Britain’s exit from the European Union. Most (including the European Research Group and other external campaign groups such as my own, Business for Britain) paid lip service to Cameron’s “3Rs” policy of renegotiation and reform followed by a referendum. Lawson’s Times op-ed was therefore political dynamite. 

The public’s major reservation about leaving the EU was the economic fallout. To have Britain’s most successful living Chancellor as a supporter made it intellectually and politically possible for others to follow suit. As political scientists say, his endorsement shifted the Overton Window on what was deemed acceptable to think and express in the European debate. 

Within days of Lawson’s article, Margaret Thatcher’s official biographer, Charles Moore, revealed that she had also come to the same conclusion before her death, but had kept it private after being told that it would enable her opponents to push her to “the fringes of public life”. Then Michael Portillo announced via another article in The Times, that he also supported Brexit (hat tip to Tim Montgomerie, who was then Comment Editor of the newspaper). 

By June 2016, much of Portillo’s tribe, the first generation of Tory modernisers, would reach the same conclusion, including Michael Gove and many new MPs associated with Policy Exchange such as Kemi Badenoch and Rishi Sunak. 

It was poignant that Lord Lawson’s article came just weeks after Lady Thatcher’s funeral; — it was one of those rare instances of a senior politician admitting a fundamental rethink of their position on a subject which had dominated the latter part of their political career. After all, Britain’s membership of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (which Lawson backed at the time), was the root cause of Thatcher’s defenestration as Prime Minister. 

The interventions resulting from Lawson’s article made Brexit that bit more acceptable within the Tory Party. They were the snowballs that started the avalanche. And throughout the months leading up to the completion of Cameron’s renegotiation, Lord Lawson worked tirelessly to lobby MPs, peers and ministers, many of whom naturally looked to him as an elder statesman and listened to him with respect. This natural gravitas was also essential for the second significant contribution that Lord Lawson made to Brexit — keeping Vote Leave together during the pressures of the designation process. 

Despite being only seven years ago, the feuding in the Brexit movement feels like another age. Time is a great healer. But in the autumn and winter of 2015/16, the tension between the two main groups competing for designation as the official, Electoral Commission-approved Leave campaign was palpable. It dominated the public media coverage of the Brexit debate. 

Both Vote Leave and Leave.eu were vying to assemble the broadest coalition of parliamentarians and external supporters to ensure the Electoral Commission chose them when the referendum was finally called. The group they designated would control everything from the referendum leaflets being posted through people’s letterboxes to the referendum broadcasts voters would see on television and the politicians who would take part in the TV debates. Would the Leave voice in the referendum be controlled by a group originating from UKIP, or a group originating from the Conservative Party? 

The infighting was visceral, and the stakes were high. One side (Leave.eu) believed that the best strategy for success was to build out from the existing base of Brexit support, the other (Vote Leave) wanted to build a new, broader coalition, able to win a majority of votes in the referendum. 

Few in the wider Conservative family of Brexit-supporting donors and parliamentarians disagreed with Vote Leave’s strategy, but there were big issues with our execution of it. Some Parliamentarians wanted more airtime, some donors couldn’t understand why our online operation seemed to be behind that of Leave.eu, and many wondered whether Dominic Cummings (less familiar in Westminster then than he is now) was enough of a team player to be Vote Leave’s campaign director. 

Lord Lawson played a vital role by steadying the Vote Leave ship

In January 2016, six months before the referendum, Lord Lawson played a vital role by steadying the Vote Leave ship during the height of these tensions. I had been summoned to the House of Lords to explain the latest squabbles. Seated on a hard bench in the Royal Gallery, Lawson said, “You need to get rid of Cummings.” Thankfully, after some back and forth, Lawson agreed instead to become our temporary chairman, and saw us through the tricky period leading up to Cameron agreeing his (minimal) renegotiation and other big beasts such as Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Gisela Stuart declaring their support — the latter taking over from Lawson as Chairman for the remainder of the campaign. 

These are just two interventions by lord Lawson in the run-up to 2016 which make him a primary force in the delivery of Brexit, and, for me, it was a definite highlight of the EU referendum period to see one of the most significant post-war political heavyweights in action. He got results not by shouting, but through measured interventions and assuming leadership at a time of crisis. 

What makes him a political colossus is the fact he made the political weather on a whole host of issues. His leadership on economic policy laid the foundations for our prosperity in the 1990s and early 2000s, and his interventions on global warming provided a necessary check on the premises of our current environmental policy. 

But whether they agree or disagree with his political views, I hope that today’s politicians take inspiration from his willingness to stand by his beliefs. There are still Nigel Lawsons in our political discourse — whether it’s Tom Tugendhat’s stance on China, Kate Forbes’s refusal to budge from her religious beliefs, or JK Rowling’s interventions on feminism — but we need more of them. I hope his political career will provide as much inspiration to others as it does to me. Baron Lawson of Blaby, rest in peace.

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