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2016 review: Every painful moment from Brexit to Trump

Anti Brexit protesters outside the Supreme Court - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

2016 will go down as a year of political shocks, the horror of Aleppo and England’s Euro 2016 football failure, but there were a few glimpses of hope. Month-by-month we look back on an eventful year

January – Credit: Archant


The year starts badly in most directions. Severe weather still batters a flood-stricken northern Britain. Rail fares rise. Jihadis running self-styled Islamic State release another murder video for internet ghouls to savour. Junior doctors (England only) announce more strikes over weekend working changes. An outbreak of Zika virus is confirmed in west Africa.

Could it get much worse? Apparently so, although we do not learn this at the time. George Osborne has had a New Year premonition that the Leave EU campaign is making most of the political weather and writes to urge No 10 to beef up the pro-Remain campaign. Not much is done. David Cameron’s communications chief, Craig Oliver (who is keeping a diary of the coming Brexit campaign), likens their plight to the Eagles hit, Hotel California, ‘We are all just prisoners here/of our own device…’

Chris Grayling and Theresa Villiers see Cameron to confirm they will be campaigning for Brexit. But the good news is that Sarah Vine and Michael Gove have socialised with Sam and Dave at Chequers over Christmas. Vine has assured Cameron that her husband will be a loyal ‘In’ supporter when the promised referendum comes in 2016 or 17. Grayling is talked out of resignation, but Cameron agrees to suspend collective responsibility for the campaign, as Harold Wilson did in 1975.

In sport, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal top the Premier League on January 1, but only on goal difference over lowly Leicester City, enjoying a plucky run which must surely end soon. In the US presidential race, loud-mouthed reality television star and property tycoon, Donald Trump, heads the Republican field despite pledging to ban all Muslims from entering the US.

Amid resignations Jeremy Corbyn reshuffles Labour’s shadow team to weed out dissidents while Britain’s Tim Peake walks in space. A judge concludes that President Putin ‘probably’ authorised the 2006 polonium murder of his own dissident, Alexander Litvinenko. At an official 6.9% in 2015, China’s growth rate is the lowest for 25 years.

February – Credit: Archant


The High Court agrees that Lord Lucan can officially be declared dead 42 years after the aristo-nanny murder suspect went on the run. More storms rage, but regulators allow scientists to genetically modify human embryos. BBC Thre and the Indy both go online-only. Number 10 worries that low visibility Theresa May might defect to the Leave camp. In Brussels, David Cameron struggles to get a plausible renegotiation deal from Angela Merkel and other EU players who have other pressing worries, only to meet with widespread Tory and press hostility when he unveils the modest package back home. With Cameron confirming that the referendum will go ahead on June 23, Boris Johnson, mayor of London and Tory box office star, finally gets off the fence after much private dithering and joins ‘loyal’ Gove in the Brexit camp. Sterling drops sharply, but polls still show a solid Remain majority. Mark Rylance is voted best supporting actor for Bridge of Spies at the Oscars.

Six men in Rotherham receive jail sentences totalling 103 years for sustained sexual abuse of teenage girls. It is announced that Crossrail will be named the Elizabeth Line. Much mocked outsider, Donald Trump, loses Iowa caucus and pundits predict his bubble has burst. Hillary Clinton struggles against Democratic insurgent rival, Bernie Sanders, and her ‘secret’ email controversy. North Korea launches long range rocket. Arsenal beat Leicester 2-1, but the latter hang on at the top of the Premier League.

March – Credit: Archant


Outsider Trump wins 11 states in US Super Tuesday primary and is denounced as a ‘con man’ by former Republican nominee, Mitt Romney, and other party grandees. Anti-establishment Democrat Sanders beats Clinton in New Hampshire primary. At Westminster, MPs vote narrowly against replacing National Anthem with an England-only version for sporting fixtures. England win Six Nations rugby. In the boat race Cambridge beats Oxford. In Syria, Russian air strikes against pro-western rebels continue to help Assad regime retake lost ground.

The OECD warns of the perils of Brexit for UK and the rest of the EU. Following Islamist bombings in Brussels which leave 32 dead, the Foreign Office warns against inessential travel to Belgium.

UKIP leader and leading Leave campaigner, Nigel Farage, says Brussels is a lawless ‘jihadi capital of Europe’ and blames EU migration rules. Ex M16 boss, Richard Dearlove says Brexit would allow UK to control borders and to dump the ECHR. Cajoled into reversing his long-held anti EU-stance, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn comes under pressure to take a more robust pro-Remain position, like all other main UK parties, except UKIP and the DUP. Tata threatens to closure Port Talbot steel works. Ex-Bosnian leader, Radovan Karadzic, gets 40 years jail at the Hague Court. Now on top of the Premier League, 5,000/1 outsiders, Leicester City, look set to stay there. Iain Duncan Smith does not. He quits the cabinet, not over Europe (he says), but over welfare cuts in George Osborne’s budget, ones he previously supported.

April – Credit: Archant


At Number 10, officials now understand ‘what it’s like to be Ed Miliband’, with the right wing press campaigning against them every day. David Cameron’s campaign against tax avoidance and evasion is attacked in the wake of Panama Papers expose which embroils the PM’s late father, whom he fiercely defends amid spurious charges from foreign-owned newspapers. All three referendum camps, including the official Vote Leave and Nigel Farage’s provisional wing, Grassroots Out, launch their appeals to voters.

Thousands take part in an anti-austerity march in London. Labour opens an inquiry into anti-semitism in a row which festers after Ken Livingstone suggests Hitler was a bit of a Zionist. The BHS retail chain, offloaded by Sir Philip Green for £1, goes into administration and a Tory think tank calls for BBC privatisation. Foreign secretary Philip Hammond visits Cuba. The Queen celebrates her 90th birthday.

Her 31% lead long evaporated and framed as the ‘Establishment’ candidate, Hillary Clinton manages to win decisively in New York primary. Consolidating his power, President Xi Jinping assumes title of commander-in-chief of Chinese armed forces.

May. – Credit: Archant


Labour’s Sadiq Khan defeats Tory overdog, Zac Goldsmith, to win the London’s mayor’s job, but his party falls into third place in Scotland. No-hoper Trump wins the Republican primary in Indiana and becomes his party’s presumptive nominee after surviving rivals quit. Leicester City do almost as well: one season after narrowly avoiding relegation the Foxes complete their historic march to the Premier League. A £20 bet earns one punter £100,000.

In the Queen’s Speech, the government promises an overhaul of prison law and support for driverless cars: with hindsight both ideas look prophetic as prisons riot and the Remain campaign goes off the road. A post-Clarkson version of Top Gear returns to BBC TV, but ratings rapidly go off road too. Veteran Tory advisor, shorts-wearing cyclist, Steve Hilton, rejoins the queue to knife Cameron over Brexit. Cameron refuses to let his staff retaliate with ‘blue on blue’ attacks on the Brexit camp.

June – Credit: Archant


Andy Murray is back on form as world tennis No 2, but not enough to beat No 1, Novak Djokovic, for the French Open title. Labour MP, Jo Cox, is shot and stabbed to death by a white British nationalist at Birstall in her West Yorkshire constituency. Campaigning is briefly suspended amid calls for less abusive behaviour.

Remain campaigners, polls, pundits and City sentiment expect Remain to win narrowly. But early results from Sunderland point to Brexit’s victory by breakfast time: 51.9% to 48.1% with London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voting Remain. Contrary to his earlier promise Cameron immediately resigns as PM. Sterling and shares prices plunge – but later recover. Sterling drops by around 10% and Britain’s credit rating dips. But jobs continue to grow.

Jeremy Corbyn, who went on holiday during the campaign, says Article 50 to start withdrawal should be triggered immediately, then says he didn’t quite mean that. Labour’s internal Brexit row triggers 31 fresh shadow resignations amid an alleged coup to force Corbyn out. He loses a no confidence motion among MPs by 172 to 40 and the party later splits 140 to 47 in favour of Trident nuclear renewal and against its leader.

Islamic State claims ‘credit’ for an attack on Istanbul airport claiming 45 lives and injuring 230.

England are knocked out of Euro 2016 by Iceland. Roy Hodgson resigns as manager. Andy Murray wins his second Wimbledon. Trump sacks his campaign manager. Farage celebrates his victory by telling fellow MEPs (‘virtually none,’ he says, have ever done a ‘proper job’) that further EU break up is now likely. Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, says much the same about the UK.

July – Credit: Archant


Theresa May, Liam Fox, Stephen Crabb, Andrea Leadsom and Michael Gove stand in the first round of voting by MPs to pick a new Tory leader after Gove spectacularly declares Boris Johnson unfit to serve. It prompts a wobbly Johnson to abort his own bid. Crabb quits over sexting allegations to concentrate on a Remain campaign at home.

With 165 of the 329 MPs votes in round one, May rapidly sees off all rivals, with hapless Leadsom withdrawing from the final round. May promises to build a ‘better Britain’, for all, not just the wealthy. Hammond becomes chancellor as Osborne is sacked, Amber Rudd becomes home secretary and, just when thought his political career over, Boris Johnson is made foreign secretary – one of Brexit’s ‘Three Musketeers’ ministers, with Fox and David Davis. Other Brexit campaigners, Leadsom and Priti Patel, get cabinet jobs. Gove does not. Farage resigns (again) as UKIP leader, claiming he ‘wants my life back’, but weighs into the emerging legal challenge over Article 50, led by investment banker (or ‘ex-model’ in Daily Mail-speak) Gina Miller. French federalist tough guy Michel Barnier is appointed to lead Brussels’ Brexit negotiation team. May says: ‘Brexit means Brexit,’ but not much else.

Angela Eagle MP declares a leadership challenge to Corbyn, but her launch press conference is wiped out by Leadsom’s withdrawal. Later she is brushed aside by Owen Smith’s surge of misplaced self belief. Corbyn survives a legal challenge to stay on the ballot and dismal opinion polls, as he will do with increasing insouciance as they get worse. Chris Evans resigns as Top Gear host.

Trump becomes official Republican nominee amid signs that the party establishment will come to terms with him. Hillary Clinton (‘Stronger Together’) finally manages to see off Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination after the FBI director states that she had been ‘careless’ over her email habits, but should not be charged. That appears to close the controversy, but Wikileaks later releases emails to show how party officials contrived to help her win. Where can these leaks be coming from, some ask? No one blames Farage, who tours Republican convention as a Trump booster, despite protesting at Barack Obama’s ‘interference’ in the UK referendum.

August – Credit: Archant

Rumours grow that Kremlin-sponsored hackers may be orchestrating anti Clinton leaks. Charges dismissed by Trump (‘Putin likes me,’ he Tweets) who jokily (?) urges Russia to ‘find the 30,000 emails that are missing from her server’. Not too many people seem upset.


Better than feared economic indicators encourage Brexit cheerleaders to denounce failure of Project Fear predictions by ‘Remoaners’. City pundits are more cautious, and FT readers are seriously unsettled as the Brexit team shows little sign of developing a coherent strategy for UK’s future trade relationship with EU, the wider world or even each other. They engage in Whitehall turf wars and over weekend shares of their Chevening pad. Trump appoints Steve Bannon, ex Goldman Sachs banker turned chairman of Breibart News, the ‘truthifying’ website, as his campaign chief. Farage joins Trump’s ‘America First’ campaign in Mississippi and is lionised as a pioneer of the new nationalism. New York-born Boris Johnson denies any link, but the Trump insists ‘They will soon be calling me Mr Brexit.’

Official figures show that Poland overtook India as the foreign country of birth for the largest number of UK residents – 831,000 – while net migration to the end of March remained at near record levels, 327,000. Some 13.3% of UK residents are now born abroad (37% in London), compared with 8.9% in 2004. It fuels tension between Hard Brexit leaders concerned to ‘take back control’ of UK borders at all costs and those who favour a compromise on the EU’s freedom of movement rule in return for continued access to the single market, customs union and other forms of commercial cooperation. Tabloid restlessness grows. ‘Why can’t we just leave?’ ask their readers. For starters, you owe us lots of money, says Brussels.

The summer Olymics open in Rio, against the background of protest and a political battle which ends in the impeachment of Brazil’s president, Dilma Rousseff, another political scalp claimed, albeit in an elite revolt against flagging left populism, also visible in neighbouring Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America. UK punches above its weight to become second in the Olympic gold medals table (27 to 46 US golds and 26 Chinese); the EU does less well, tabloids note. With some athletes banned over doping scandals, so does Russia.

Jeremy Corbyn contributes to the silly season by allowing himself to be filmed crouched on the floor of a crowded Virgin Train on which he claims to be unable to find a seat. The row rumbles on for weeks.

September – Credit: Archant


Angela Merkel loses regional election in her east German backyard thanks to rise of the Alternative for Germany hard right and voter concerns about immigration, but remains determined to stand for a fourth term as chancellor in 2017, one of three major EU elections before the UK can expect much Brexit attention.

In US elections Hillary Clinton is reported as condemning millions of her rivals supporters as a ‘basket of deplorables’. Trump makes much of ‘crooked Hillary’ and her ‘secret’ health problems, while continuing to refuse to publish his own tax and medical records. He suggests Clinton’s own ‘Russian links’ should be investigated.

The rival candidates face off in the first presidential debate on TV, watched by 80 million voters. Under attack for her perceived dishonesty and her record on free trade, Clinton says she is being ‘blamed for everything that ever happened’ (Trump: ‘why not?’), but she is deemed to have won the round. Trump says Putin is ‘a leader far more than our president’.

The conference season starts. As the only all-UK party leader actively seeking to reverse Brexit (Tony Blair also flirts with a second referendum) Tim Farron reaches beyond the Lib Dem core in Brighton to disaffected Labour pro-Europeans and condemns Jeremy Corbyn for failing to provide real opposition. At Labour’s Liverpool conference a newly confident Corbyn is confirmed in a second landslide win, this time over Owen Smith, and uses his conference speech to chide MPs involved in what he sees as a botched coup to depose him. With half a million members – the largest party in Europe – he insists that ‘we’ are reuniting the Labour family despite the hostile press and polls.

October – Credit: Archant


In her own first party conference speech as Tory leader May promises to lead the centre-ground ‘party of workers’ to a fairer Britain, one which sees ‘the good that government can do’. She appears to suggest that Brexit will be at the harder end of the spectrum, which appears to satisfy 76% of activists – for now.

WikiLeaks Julian Assange releases another tranche of leaked emails which damage the Clinton campaign. A wave of far more specific allegations of sexual harassment and groping hits Donald Trump’s campaign, complete with boastful video recordings which the candidate dismisses as ‘locker room banter’. Politicians run for cover, Trump even apologies slightly, but keeps moving forward. In the second debate, Clinton accuses Trump of ‘living in an alternative reality’. He promises she ‘would be in jail’ if he became president.

Eleven days before polling day, FBI chief, James Comey, sensationally reveals that the bureau is reopening its investigation into Clinton’s emails, after apparently unearthing exchanges between her and a top aide. A week later, he says no further action will be taken, but many non-Democrats share concern that his politicised intervention may damage the frontrunner at a crucial moment.

Candice Brown, a 31-year-old PE teacher, wins the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, the last series before the show decamps to C4. China’s Xi becomes ‘core leader’, a title once held by Mao.

November – Credit: Archant


Despite persistently complaining about a ‘rigged election’, Trump wins the White House thanks to the collapse of the Clinton ‘firewall’ in key rust belt states like Wisconsin (by 28,000 votes) and Pennsylvannia (60,000 votes); though the Democratic challenger ends up winning 2.8 million more votes – piled up in the wrong places, not the 18th century electoral college. A recount call succeeds in Wisconsin amid claims that Clinton ‘under-performed’ by up to 7% in electronic voting booths, compared with paper ballots cast.

Trump’s victory speech is conciliatory, even generous to Clinton, the first hint of betrayal to come for his Middle America backers, protest his critics. To widespread dismay, three High Court judges in London are branded out of touch ‘enemies of the people’ by the Daily Mail for agreeing with Gina Miller’s counsel that parliament must be consulted about the process whereby Theresa May proceeds with Brexit. Tory MPs and tabloids accuse the judges of trying to block Brexit and one of being both gay and pro-European.

Brexit cheerleaders remain unclear themselves how it should best proceed. Signs emerge that David Davis is aligning himself with chancellor Hammond in the realist school of withdrawal, which may require time and compromises. Hammond dubbed ‘Mr Gloomy’ as he adopts a cautious stand on the cost of Brexit and other uncertainties. To add to those uncertainties, former cabinet minister, Ed Balls, and his dance partner, Katya Jones, are finally voted off Strictly Come Dancing in one of the few non-upsets of the year.

December – Credit: Archant


Italian reformist PM Matteo Renzi, resigns after losing his own referendum on constitutional reform, widely seen as another establishment defeat by a populist coalition of left and right. Deeply unpopular at home, Francois Hollande declares he will not seek a second term as France’s socialist president in 2017. Ex PM Francois Fillon is the centre right’s ‘Thatcherite’ likely to face the NF’s Marine Le Pen (‘Madame Frexit’) in the second round play-off.

In Brussels, the EU’s Brexit chief Barnier says the UK’s draft deal to leave will have to be ready by October 2018 to meet the two year timetable by spring 2019.

As Trump’s cabinet picks and Twitter comments alarm pundits, as well as foreign leaders, sophisticated commentators argue that voters take him ‘seriously, but not literally’, whereas the media persist in the mistake of seeing it the other way around. Many US allies are also alarmed by casual Twitter diplomacy. China’s leadership is angered by president-elect Trump’s 10 minute phone call with Taiwan counterpart, Tsai Ing-Wen. Later, China captures a US submarine drone in a South China Sea confrontation hotspot ‘by accident’.

Amid a spate of strikes affecting rail travel as well as the Christmas post, the communities secretary, Sajid Javid, backs calls for all public office holders to swear an oath of allegiance to British values.

The besieged Syrian city of Aleppo finally falls to Russian-backed Assad allies, amid speculation that big power politics between the US, Russia and China may soon become the norm. Does it all suggest an end to the year of populist insurgency and a return to normalcy? Or is it just a lull before a renewal of the gathering storm? Police officer Mevlut Mert Altintas assassinates Russian ambassador to Turkey Andrei Karlov before screaming: ‘Don’t forget Aleppo.’ Putin called the killing ‘provocation’.

As 2016 draws to a close there is more bloodshed on Europe’s streets when a lorry ploughs into a packed Christmas market in Berlin echoing the devastating Nice attack in July.

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