The big Brexit questions – what will it mean for Britain, for the EU, for the City of London, sterling, mortgages, business, the price of a pint – will only be resolved after the result of the UK referendum on leaving the EU on Thursday (23 June) is known.
But the actual logistics of the vote and process for announcing the result itself are also somewhat shrouded in mystery.
As of Tuesday (21 June), Downing Street remained resolutely tight-lipped, citing ‘campaign purdah’ and refusing to even confirm if – nevermind when – the Prime Minister, David Cameron, would be addressing the nation on the Friday morning (24 June) after the poll.
Instead, all queries were referred to the Electoral Commission, the independent body masterminding the logistics of the referendum – only the second UK-wide referendum since 1975 – which said, vaguely, that a final result should be known about “breakfast” time – without specifying when that would be.
So, roughly, this is what to look out for during Thursday and Friday. But don’t set your stopwatches – all timings, bar opening and closing of polls, are subject to change.
(*Note: all times in Brussels/Central European Summer Time. UK time is currently 1 hour behind.)
Thursday 23 June
- Voting booths open at 8AM across England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland (and Gibraltar) and close at 11PM.
- During these hours, British broadcasters and online media, are restricted by law from publishing or printing anything that may affect the outcome of the vote. Whether that could be applied to non-UK media is doubtful.
- Unlike in a General Election, with results by some 650 constituencies of roughly equal size, the referendum count is by a designated 382 ‘counting areas’ across the UK.
- 11PM polls close. Ordinarily, at a General Election, this is the precise second at which the BBC releases its exit poll (remember the shock in 2015 when it – correctly – predicted an outright Conservative victory, in contradiction of all previous opinion polling?). The BBC are not running an official exit poll, citing the lack of previous comparable data to extrapolate assumptions from. ITV and Sky may attempt to fill the gap, but with all opinion polling in recent months pointing to a dead heat, or within margins of error, the potential for catastrophic egg-on-face is huge.
Friday 24 June
- The UK terrestrial broadcasters are running through the night news coverage, but little of significance is likely to be known before around 5AM, and even then only from a conglomeration of individual results, turnout and with an added smattering of speculation.
- There will be a total of 382 ‘mini-results’, or counts, but at the level above that, the UK is designated into 11 regional ‘zones’, whose regional counting officer will relay their overall result to the final count, taking place at Manchester Town Hall.
- As in a UK General Election, Sunderland in the north-east of England is likely to be the first to ‘declare’, at between 01.30AM-2AM. As a deprived and depressed industrial Labour stronghold, this is likely to give an inkling of how UKIP have eaten into the ostensibly pro-EU Labour vote.
- Likewise, Merthyr Tydfil in Wales (2.30AM), and Barking & Dagenham (3.30AM), whilst Nuneaton (3AM) may give a better picture of how ‘Middle England’ has voted.
- “Early hours” – Electoral Commission officials predict they will be able to give a national turnout estimate “in the early hours of Friday”, at least “several hours ahead of the final result”.
- For reference, the highly-anticipated Scottish referendum on independence in 2014 saw 84.6% turnout. By contrast, the turnout at the five UK general elections has been: 66.1% (2015), 65% (2010), 61.4% (2005), 59.4% (2001) and 71.4% (1997).
- A turnout below 60% would suggest a victory by ‘Leave’, as all experts agree their base is more motivated to turn out and vote. Something approaching 70%, and above, may favour ‘Remain’.
- With the UK both split down the middle on ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, and highly-stratified by geographical location and class on the issue, there may be some wildly swinging and variable results that in themselves give either campaign cause to celebrate, but ultimately end up cancelling each other out or merely obscuring a clear overview of the overall result.
- In general, London, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Gibraltar are strongly ‘In’, the home counties and the Midlands up for grabs, the east coast heavily ‘Leave’ and many former Labour heartlands in the north and in Wales (which last month elected seven UKIP members to the Welsh Assembly) heavily uncertain.
- Breakfast will be The official ‘time’ by which Electoral Commission officials to have a final result.
- The announcement of the referendum results will take place not in London, but in Manchester, at the city’s town hall. No party leaders are expected to be present in Manchester.
Late Friday Morning
Although Downing Street is being coy, it is inconceivable that David Cameron will not make a public statement – probably from the steps of Downing Street as after the Scottish referendum result – around mid-morning, or at least within an hour or so of the official result being known.
With opinion polling neck-and-neck, Cameron, Chancellor George Osborne, and their respective spin doctors, must have come up with both a win and a lose speech, possibly with finer gradations according to the narrowness of the result.
A win could see Cameron declare the issue settled, a mandate for his renegotiation to be put into action, and further reform under the British rotating presidency of the Council of Europe in the second half of 2017.
In addition, Cameron is free to reshuffle his cabinet, rewarding those who fought alongside him for Remain, being magnanimous to those who campaigned politely for Leave – and deciding whether to extract revenge on Boris Johnson. Many believe Cameron regards Johnson as having personally betrayed him in order to fight his own Conservative leadership campaign.
A Brexit vote is likely to first and foremost have rattled the foreign exchange markets, causing sterling to sink, and the FTSE100 to drop dramatically. This will begin a minimum of two years of painstaking negotiations of the UK’s exit terms, renegotiation of UK trade deals with the rest of the world, and possibly overwhelming pressure on both Cameron and Osborne to resign, or at least outline a timetable for a Conservative party leadership contest.
Under the Fixed-Term Parliament Act of 2011, the next scheduled election is not until 2020, but one could be called a vote of no confidence in the government is called and a simple majority of the 650 MPs vote for it.
- 10.30AM Friday: Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Council President Donald Tusk, Parliament President Martin Schultz and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (the Dutch have the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU) are scheduled to meet to discuss the UK result.
Expect comment and reaction from most, if not all heads of government of the other 27 member states. Of particular importance will be German Chancellor Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President François Hollande and, perhaps, the Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło.
Last but not least, under a Brussels journalistic perspective: the press centre of the Council will exceptionally remain open through the night of 23-24 June. Journalists usually tweet from there with the #EUCO hashtag.