Britain’s conservative tabloids were in a decidedly sunny mood in the run-up to the Brexit vote in June 23, 2016. “Independence Day!” The Sun cheered on its cover the day of the vote, featuring an image of the Sun dawning over the UK. “You can free UK from clutches of the EU today,” an accompanying caption declared.
The Daily Mail was equally upbeat when the “Leave” vote won over “Remain” by four percentage points. “Take a bow, Britain!” the paper’s front page declared on June 24, observing that the “quiet people of Britain” had conquered an “arrogant, out-of-touch political class, and a contemptuous Brussels elite.”
The papers don’t sound quite so chipper about Brexit now.
The British government is in chaos after a slew of resignations in response to UK prime minister Theresa May’s draft Brexit deal. With the future of her leadership in jeopardy, even Brexit supporters can’t deny that things have gotten pretty messy. (“Theresa May’s terrible Brexit deal has united the UK in horror,” the Financial Times’ Martin Wolf neatly summarized.)
Yet Brexiteers critical of May’s proposal seem unwilling to put forward an alternative, perhaps because they know that any deal will inevitably be met with public outcry. As George Eaton writes for the New Statesman, “The problem is not that May has failed to deliver on the Leave campaign’s promises—the problem is that no prime minister could have done so.”
How has the media narrative around Brexit shifted over the course of two years, given the circumstances? Quartz compared the front pages of newspapers from June 23 and 24, 2016, to the covers from one tumultuous week in November 2018 to find out.
The Sun, as historian Jelle Simons points out on Twitter, has gone from depicting Brexit as the dawn of a happy new era to admitting, “We’re in the Brexsh*t.”
The Daily Mail’s 2016 cover portrayed Brexit as a populist victory. Now its headline seeks to distance the public that voted for Brexit from the current ruckus, putting the blame squarely on the shoulders of politicians, with its Nov. 16 cover asking, “Have they lost the plot?”
The left-wing Daily Mirror was in the Remain camp, but on the day after the vote, it tried to strike a conciliatory tone with a cover that begged “Remain & Leave supporters to start their healing process.” Its present-day headline—”War Cabinet”—suggests it has given up on hopes of unity.
The Daily Express, meanwhile, couldn’t have been bolder in its recommendation to the public on June 23: “Your country needs you: Vote Leave Today.” These days, the paper sounds markedly less triumphant.
But it’s the cover of The New European, a British pro-EU weekly that was founded in the aftermath of Brexit, that perhaps best sums up the UK government’s current predicament.