Just ten minutes after polling closed in the United Kingdom’s Referendum on membership of the European Union on Thursday night, share prices had risen around the world, sterling had strengthened to $1.50 and the bookmakers were offering odds of 1/20 that there would be a vote for Remain. Leave campaigner Nigel Farage had even appeared on television to all but concede defeat.
Not for the first time, the bookies had read the prevailing conditions wrong. Take last year in the aftermath of the General Election, when they gave Jeremy Corbyn no chance of becoming the Labour Party leader and made him a 100/1 outsider to succeed Ed Miliband. Or there is the even more remarkable example of the Premier League, when they failed to recognise the qualities of a Leicester City side who would win the title by a distance, offering them at odds of 750/1 well into late November having opened the season at 5000/1.
Even before midnight on Thursday there were whispers emerging that the polls had once again got things wrong and that the vote might be closer than they had presumed. Then when Newcastle declared for remain but by a smaller margin than expected, sterling fell off a cliff and the odds for a Remain vote leapt to 8/13 within half an hour. Sunderland’s overwhelming Leave vote sent further shock waves through the market, yet it wasn’t until 2am that Remain went odds against.
There is no such thing as a typical Leave voter, with those who decided to take the UK out of the EU falling into a variety of camps. There was the older generation, still smarting after four decades of ever-closer ties with the continent having believed they were simply joining a trading bloc. There will have been some voters on the fringes who believed in Farage’s dog-whistle message on immigration and “taking their country back”, plus a huge ground-swell who believed that they were just sticking two fingers up to the establishment.
With hindsight it is obvious that when he called the Referendum, David Cameron hugely underestimated the strength of the resentment beyond the boundaries of a pro-Eu London. Away from London and other metropolitan areas, England was hugely in favour of a Brexit. But so too did the bookmakers, who a year ago were offering a Leave vote at odds of 10/3. By Christmas that price had shortened to 13/8 and over the next four months it bumped around between there and 5/2.
In May the polls were consistently showing Remain in the lead and by the end of the month a Brexit vote was looking highly unlikely, at least if the bookies were to be believed, as they were offering Leave at a peak of 4/1. However, the pollsters were shown to be wrong on last year’s General Election, with their pre-election and exit polls both predicting a hung parliament, and they were wrong here too.
As June progressed, the Leave campaign ramped up their emphasis on immigration as their core strategy and it began to pay dividends. The polls began to turn in their favour, but even as they were being given a projected six-point lead a Remain vote was the firm odds-on favourite. Leave was backed in to 7/5 by the middle of the month, but tragedy – in the form of the murder of the Batley & Spen MP Jo Cox – combined with Farage’s crass Breaking Point poster on Thursday before polling and appeared to turn the tide against Boris Johnson and his Vote Leave team once again.
Just hours before the ballot boxes opened, a Leave vote was back out to odds of 10/3 and the Remain camp were quietly confident. Yet a day later, Farage was celebrating a victory in rather tasteless fashion, Cameron had resigned and the SNP were putting a second Scottish Independence Referendum on the table.
Johnson is now the odds-on favourite to replace Cameron as Prime Minister at best price 4/5 with Betfred, while Ladbrokes are offering a tempting 4/6 that another Scottish Referendum takes place before the end of 2020. Meanwhile, bookmakers have been taking big money on Donald Trump to be the next US President, with his odds shortening to a best of 3/1 with Ladbrokes, while the French National Front leader Marine Le Pen is just 3/1 at Unibet to be elected the next French President, as voters of Western economies lurch to the right.