Brexit day: The story of the UK leaving the EU in key quotes


Britain has left the EU, more than three years and three prime ministers after it voted out.

It’s been a political rollercoaster full of twists and turns, and a journey which can be tracked by what people said at the time.

Some have aged better than others, but here are a few of the key quotes from before the referendum until Brexit day.

David Cameron in October 2011

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When your neighbour’s house is on fire, your first impulse should be to help them to put out the flames – not least to stop the flames reaching your own house

Then-PM David Cameron was speaking about Britain’s response to Europe’s debt crisis. MPs in Parliament had just voted against holding an EU referendum, after 100,000 people signed a petition calling for one.

But back then, the word Brexit had not even been invented. In the summer of 2012, as London readied itself for hosting the Olympics, the “B” word emerged, albeit with a different spelling to what we know today:


Bring on the Brixit

Meanwhile, the PM faced more pressure to hold a EU referendum. Nearly 100 Tory MPs signed a letter to him calling for one.

John Baron led calls from nearly 100 Tory MPs calling for an EU referendum

Conservative Party

There is a consistent majority in this country who believe that the European Union meddles too much in our everyday lives

The following year, Mr Cameron agreed, promising a referendum on Britain staying in the EU.

David Cameron appearing on a screen during a speech on Europe

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It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time for us to settle this question about Britain and Europe

He planned to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU before giving people a “simple choice” of in or out. In Europe, politicians reacted:

Then-French foreign minister Laurent Fabius holding some folders

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You can’t do Europe a la carte… Imagine Europe is a football club and you join, once you’re in it you can’t say ‘Let’s play rugby’

Meanwhile UKIP was becoming a force in British politics. Leader Nigel Farage said he wanted a referendum to happen quickly.

Nigel Farage grinning while seated

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A full, free and fair referendum with some proper sensible rules – particularly on spending – on both sides of the debate

By December 2013 the party claimed that a record year of growth had taken its membership above 30,000 for the first time.

Back in Brussels, the time had come for an EU summit, with Mr Cameron pledging to deliver a strong message to EU leaders.

David Cameron speaking to a crowd of cameras and the media

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Brussels has got too big, too bossy, too interfering

During the next year, his plans to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU were discussed.

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I don’t understand how it is possible to say: ‘We, the UK, have all the positive aspects of Europe but don’t want to share any of the risk’

Mr Cameron, fresh from a general election victory, went on to strike a deal on a new UK-EU relationship. He promised “We’ll be out of the parts of Europe that don’t work for us” and “never be part of a European super-state”.

He then announced a date for the referendum – 23 June 2016.

David Cameron speaking outside No 10 Downing Street

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The choice is in your hands

Most other parties – except the DUP and UKIP – backed Remain, including Labour.

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Overwhelmingly for staying in

Among those warning against Brexit was the then-US president. The UK, he said, would not be seen as a priority for trade deals.

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The UK is going to be in the back of the queue

And a group of nearly 300 actors, musicians, writers and artists signed a letter urging people to vote Remain.

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Our global creative success would be severely weakened by walking away

Meanwhile, it was during the campaign that the then-Mayor of London Boris Johnson famously, and wrongly, echoed Vote Leave’s claim that the UK pays the EU £350m a week – higher than the actual amount at the time.

Boris Johnson standing in front of crowds next to the NHS Brexit bus

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If we vote Leave on June 23 we can take back control of £350m a week and spend on our priorities here in this country including on the NHS

A computer glitch meant thousands of people were unable to register to vote in time. The government blamed the snag on record demand and extended the deadline, allowing another 430,000 more people to register.

An advertisement urging people to register to vote for the 2016 referendum

Electoral Commission

504 Gateway Time-out

With just over a week to go, polling expert Prof John Curtice said Remain was no longer the frontrunner.

Sir John Curtice explaining what the latest polls are showing before the EU referendum


We no longer have a favourite in this referendum

Nevertheless, there was surprise for many when, on referendum night, the results started to show a lead for Leave.

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Dare to dream that the dawn is breaking on an independent United Kingdom

Later, the full result was in: Britain had voted to leave the EU and Europe was in shock.

Across the continent and beyond, front pages reacted to the “24 hours in which the world has changed”.

A mix of world news front pages following the Brexit vote


An earthquake in Europe

The following day, Mr Cameron – who fronted the Remain campaign – quit, saying he had fought the campaign “head, heart and soul”.

David Cameron and wife Samantha outside Downing Street

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I think the country requires fresh leadership

It sparked a race for the next Conservative Party leader. Boris Johnson was immediately installed as the bookies’ favourite to win and was backed by his fellow Leave campaigner, Michael Gove.

But, in a shock twist, Mr Gove announced that instead of backing his friend and colleague, he himself would run for the top job. Mr Johnson pulled out of the contest.

Michael Gove being met by press as he leaves his home

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I came… to the conclusion that while Boris has great attributes he was not capable of leading the party and the country in the way that I would have hoped

Theresa May became the frontrunner, and set out her ambitions to win.

Theresa May launches her Conservative leadership campaign

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I know I’m not a showy politician… I don’t gossip about people over lunch, I don’t often wear my heart on my sleeve, I just get on with the job in front of me

She took over the following month and with a new UK prime minister came a new slogan:

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Brexit means Brexit – and we’re going to make a success of it

A year later, she called a snap election which saw the Conservative Party lose their majority, while Labour made gains.

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A disaster for Theresa May

Meanwhile, negotiations had begun – with leading EU figures making their opinions clear. Donald Tusk quoted John Lennon to suggest the door remained open to the UK staying.

Donald Tusk on the phone at an EU summit

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You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one

Jean-Claude Juncker sitting in the European Parliament in Strasbourg

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We have to be grateful for so many things Britain has brought to Europe – during the war, before the war, after the war. But now they have to pay

After months of talks, Theresa May announced that her top team had backed her Brexit deal. Jean-Claude Juncker later insisted: “I’m never changing my mind.

Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker shake hands

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The best and only deal possible

Abba star Bjorn Ulvaeus shared his thoughts on Theresa May dancing on to the stage to the sound of Dancing Queen at the Conservative Party conference.

Theresa May and Abba's Bjorn Ulvaeus

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A lady with not a lot of rhythm in her

Meanwhile, as Theresa May struggled to get her deal through Parliament, Mr Tusk was criticised for taking aim at Brexiteers.

Prime minister Theresa May meets with EU Council President Donald Tusk at the EU-League of Arab States Summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt

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I’ve been wondering what the special place in hell looks like… for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it safely

Brexit was postponed to 31 October, after MPs rejected the Brexit deal and voted against leaving without a deal. Mr Tusk said the extension was “enough” to get a solution.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk and Prime Minister Theresa May attend a round table meeting in Brussels, Belgium.

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Please do not waste this time

Amid a backlash from her own MPs against her Brexit plan – and after the deal was rejected three times – Mrs May quit as prime minister after three years.

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I have done everything I can to convince MPs to back that deal… I tried three times

Two months later, and the UK had a new PM, after Mr Johnson won the Conservative leadership vote against Jeremy Hunt. He referred to Brexit in his maiden speech, saying “the buck stops here”.

Boris Johnson outside Downing Street for his maiden speech as prime minister

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I will take personal responsibility for the change I want to see

Early on, Mr Johnson faced criticism after suspending Parliament just days after MPs returned to work.

Jeremy Corbyn walking with his advisers

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A smash and grab on our democracy

But pressing on with his “get Brexit done” message, Mr Johnson was adamant Brexit would not be postponed again.

Boris Johnson standing in front of police officers

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I’d rather be dead in a ditch [than delay Brexit]

Then, at the end of September, Mr Johnson suffered a blow when his decision to suspend Parliament was ruled to be unlawful by the UK’s top court.

lady hale in front of a bookcase

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It is impossible for us to conclude… that there was any reason – let alone a good reason – to advise Her Majesty to
prorogue Parliament for five weeks

MPs returned to work straight away – and the mood in the Commons was angry. Mr Johnson became embroiled in a row about the language used, and was criticised for one comment in particular:

Boris Johnson in Parliament after MPs returned following the prorogation

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The best way to honour the memory of Jo Cox, and indeed to bring this country together, would be, I think, to get Brexit done

Meanwhile, for the PM’s adviser, Dominic Cummings – who also ran the Vote Leave campaign – being in government was less pressure than the Brexit campaign.

Dominic Cummings walking into No 10 Downing Street

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This is a walk in the park compared to the referendum

Finally, Mr Johnson sent a request to the EU asking for a delay to Brexit – but without his signature – and accompanied by a second letter, which he did sign, saying he believed a delay would be a mistake.

And despite his “do or die” pledge, he agreed to an extension until 31 January.

Michel Barnier following talks on Brexit


I am happy that decision has been taken

After several attempts to get a general election, Mr Johnson finally succeeded – the UK’s first December election for 96 years.

He won with a big majority, meaning the path to “get Brexit done” suddenly became a lot smoother.

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We pulled it off, we broke the deadlock, we ended the gridlock, we smashed the roadblock

Last week, the PM signed the Brexit withdrawal agreement, saying he hoped it would “bring to an end far too many years of argument and division”.



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