Led by Donkeys is a British political campaign group using satire targeted at pro-Brexit politicians. Since its creation in December 2018, the four founders have been calling out what they call "thermonuclear hyprocrisy". Led by Donkeys' main campaign consists of billboards containing past statements by pro-Brexit politicians which appear to undermine their changed political position. Initially run as a guerilla operation for the first few billboards, illegally plastering over existing adverts, it was then expanded into a crowdfunded campaign that legitimately purchased hundreds of billboards across the UK. Their name comes from the phrase "lions led by donkeys", referring to soldiers in the First World War who were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders.
Led by Donkeys won the award for Best Social Media Campaign in the 2019 Social Purpose Awards organised by marketing website the Drum. The founders wrote a book entitled 'Led by donkeys: How four friends with a ladder took on Brexit' about their creation.
Two and a half years after the 2016 referendum in which Britain voted by 52% to 48% to leave the European Union, four friends were discussing their frustrations with the ongoing Brexit affairs after work in The Birdcage, a pub in Stoke Newington. Then Prime Minister Theresa May had just decided not to put her withdrawal agreement to a vote in the House of Commons.[A] All four men have a Greenpeace connection; Oliver Knowles and Ben Stewart are employees, and James Sadri and Will Rose had previously been involved with the environmental activists group. They had all voted to remain in the EU. They were laughing in disbelief as they passed a phone around displaying a David Cameron tweet from 2015, from before the last election, saying "Britain faces a simple and inescapable choice - stability and strong Government with me, or chaos with Ed Miliband". Knowles praised Cameron for not having deleted the tweet. They agreed it would be a real shame if he did, as in their view it summed up the "failure of Britain’s political leadership". While brainstorming how the tweet could be preserved, in a museum perhaps, one of them noticed a billboard outside. They decided to print it out and paste it up. Each of them then chose a Brexiteer they despise the most and looked for their "most offensive lies, lunacy and hypocrisy" to go on billboards as well, as "tweets you can't delete". They settled on these four: Michael Gove saying, in 2016, "The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and can choose the path we want"; Liam Fox saying in 2017 "The Free Trade Agreement that we will do with the European Union should be one of the easiest in human history"; David Davis saying in 2016 "There will be no downside to Brexit, only a considerable upside"; and John Redwood saying in 2016 "Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy - the UK holds most of the cards in any negotiation". By Christmas 2018, these Brexiteers lamented that May's poor deal with the EU represents servitude.
Rose designed the posters. They realised that in order to be able to put photos of the billboards on social media they needed a name. Sadri came up with "Lions led by donkeys", a common phrase referring to soldiers in the First World War who were sent to their deaths by incompetent and indifferent leaders. They thought it describes the relationship of the British people and their Brexit leaders well. Rose shortened it to #LedByDonkeys. They have the five tweets printed at billboard size. The activists bought a ladder, high-visibility jackets to look legitimate, a bucket, a roller and wallpaper paste, and late at night on 8 January 2019 they illegally plastered the David Cameron tweet over a finance advert on a billboard on the intersection of Manor Road and the A10 in Stoke Newington. They posted a photo of the billboard on their new Twitter account and asked The Guardian journalist Marina Hyde to retweet it, soon resulting in #LedByDonkeys trending on Twitter. Within a day their billboard poster had been plastered over with blue paper.
In between their day jobs and family life, at night the group illegally pasted the other four original tweets on billboards in London. One of the aims of the group is to spark a discussion amongst Leave voters about the promises of the leading Brexiteers. They chose Dover, a pro-Brexit constituency, as their next location. They selected four new historical Brexiteer statements, partially from suggestions made by their social media followers, among which Dominic Raab's 2018 statement "I hadn't quite understood the full extent of this but ... we are particularly reliant on the Dover-Calais crossing". On 16 January 2019 the group tweeted photos of the four Dover billboards, along with the message "A busy night on the Brexit frontline. We’ve covered Dover in the historic quotes of the people responsible for this chaos. Britain is a nation #LedByDonkeys." The group later states that this is the moment when they went viral. The next day all four posters were removed by the billboard company.
On social media their followers asked for billboards all over the country, rather than just the South East of England, which voted mostly Remain. The activists deplored the tribalism triggered by Brexit and agreed going national was needed. Their followers suggest they set up a crowdfunder to raise money to legitimately put billboards up in places far outside London. Initially they resisted this temptation. The fact that their acts were illegal was an important part of the project. They also feared they would have to give up their anonymity to get crowdfunding, thus risking fines and convictions. But when people from crowdfunder.co.uk reached out to them, they learned they could stay anonymous. Video footage of the Dover billboards being removed within a day made the group change their mind. They set up a target of £10,000. It was reached within 3 hours. By November 2019 they had raised £500,000 and had become the biggest crowdfunded political campaign in UK history.
The group has described itself in various ways: "a Brexit accountability project", calling out "thermonuclear hypocrisy", and "political street theatre". They did not have a grand plan with big ambitions. Initially, it was just cathartic to do something themselves that they thought nobody else was doing but should. They brought the Greenpeace "ethos of the mindbomb of campaigning", where one single picture can shift people's perceptions, to their Led by Donkeys work. Humour plays a key part as well.
For months it was unknown who was behind Led by Donkeys; nobody at Greenpeace knew that two of their staff were among the founders. Although the activists did give interviews, including with international press such as Al Jazeera and NPR, these did not reveal their names; some used fake first names instead. When on 17 May 2019 political website Guido Fawkes, which is linked to the Leave campaign, posted on social media that Led by Donkeys is breaching election laws by overspending,[B] the activists realised that it would not be long before their names would be revealed. To pre-empt this, they arranged an interview with The Observer to make their identities public themselves. Six months later they publish a book describing their unexpected adventure, entitled 'Led by donkeys: How four friends with a ladder took on Brexit'.
Their main campaign of holding Brexiteers accountable for past promises and exposing their flipfloping views has been ongoing. By November 2019 over 300 billboards in predominantly pro-Brexit areas have carried their messages, estimated to have reached by 30 million people.
The design of statements as tweets on billboards was tweaked in late January 2019. One of the billboards featured Jacob Rees-Mogg's 2011 statement in the House of Commons that it might make sense to have two referendums. Led by Donkeys had rendered it in its standard tweet format. Rees-Mogg had called the billboard dishonest, not only because he had been talking about different circumstances, but also because he was not on Twitter yet in 2011. Led by Donkeys from then on added a footnote to billboards featuring statements other than tweets. In the case of Rees-Mogg they added "He didn't tweet it, he actually said it! In the House of Commons. What changed?"
Over time the activists chose other media as well, besides static billboards. They have used ad vans, industrial projectors,, beaches, fields, and 800 square meters crowd flags. The first crowd flag was unfolded on Parliament Square by thousands of anti-Brexit protesters at the conclusion of the Put It to the People march on 23 March 2019. Led by Donkeys had hired a helicopter to film the unfolding from the air. The banner had a 2012 quote from David Davis “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”.
When the EU were considering to give the UK an extension to the original deadline of March 29, Led by Donkeys used a giant projector to display a video on the White Cliffs of Dover. Their goal was to ask the EU leaders for much more time, so that there could be a second referendum. The video displayed an SOS in blue, with the O made up of yellow stars, to mimic the EU flag. EU leader Guy Verhofstadt tweeted back the next day that it was "quite something to see the White Cliffs of Dover turn blue". Other projections include a video projected onto the Houses of Parliament, asking if Boris Johnson is a criminal, after the judges ruled he unlawfully had suspended parliament; and onto Buckingham Palace saying "Your majesty, your new prime minister is a liar"; and projections onto Edinburgh Castle; Cardiff Castle; and the Titanic Museum in Belfast. In September 2019 Michael Gove was in charge of preparing the UK for a No Deal Brexit. In March Gove had written in a Daily Mail article that there is no mandate for a No Deal Brexit: "We didn’t vote to leave without a deal". To call out this contradiction, Led by Donkeys carved a 7,500 square meters portrait of Gove and this quote in the sandy beach of Redcar. Coinciding with the Let Us Be Heard march on 19 October 2019, Led by Donkeys ploughed a message in 40 meter high letters in a field in Wiltshire, saying "Britain now wants to remain". This conclusion was based on a YouGov analysis of 300 polls.The activists hired a helicopter to film the event from the air.
In March 2019, it was announced that Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage were to organise a two week pro-Brexit march from Sunderland to London titled March to Leave. Led by Donkeys set up a dedicated crowdfundraiser entitled "Let's take the truth to Farage's Brexit march". They deliberately did not target the marchers, just Farage. Led by Donkeys hired two advertising trucks displaying previous statements and video clips of Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage accompanied the pro-Brexit March to Leave. A YouTube videoclip of Farage not being happy with the advertising truck displaying his 2016 declaration "If Brexit is a disaster I’ll go and live abroad" had been watched 2 million times within weeks.
In April 2019, the Brexit Party set up an official website at thebrexitparty.org, but did not register thebrexitparty.com; Led by Donkeys registered a parody website at that address. The Brexit Party did not publish a manifesto prior to the EU elections in May. Led by Donkeys decided to write it for them by putting past statements and tweets on billboards across the UK, and keep a repository on the parody website. After having received a threatening legal letter from the Brexit Party to cease and desist, citing EU law, the group offered them the web address for over a million pounds.
US President Donald Trump had made pro-Brexit statements and praised Farage and Johnson. Prior to Trump's state visit to London in June 2019, Led by Donkeys designed a campaign to diminish the two leading Brexiteers through association with the unpopular president. Led by Donkeys projected a 2015 video onto Big Ben of Johnson saying that Trump would be unfit for the presidency. Before they could get arrested, they moved the projector to the Tower of London to project a comparison of Trump's UK approval rating of 21% and former president Barack Obama's of 72%. Finally they projected a red USS John S. McCain hat onto the dome of Madame Tussauds, trolling Trump based on news reports that in Japan his aides orchestrated events to avoid Trump seeing the ship's crew displaying the name of his adversary. A draft plan of projecting Trump's Access Hollywood tape onto Buckingham Palace during his state dinner with the Queen was cancelled at a late stage. On their social media account the group posted videos of their stunts. Johnson's Big Ben video was viewed two million times (Johnson cancelled a previously arranged meeting with Trump); the three videos together enmassed 12 million views on Twitter.
Following the government's ₤100m "Get Ready for Brexit" advertising campaign in August 2019, with a No Deal Brexit a possibility as the October 31 deadline was approaching, Led by Donkeys crowdfunded money for a spoof campaign. The group felt the government was overlooking the negative effects of a No Deal Brexit and the ad campaign was poorly designed. They put up billboards in the style of the official campaign but featuring conclusions from the governments own analysis, for example "Get ready for 'possible increased risk of serious organised crime'" They subsequently ran a competition for members of the public to see who could best satirise the government's ad campaign. The five winning entries were displayed on billboards across the country. A crowd flag with the message "Get ready for a People's Vote" was unfolded on Parliament Square during the Put it to the People march in October 2019.
In January 2019 Led by Donkeys illegally put up near the Jaguar Land Rover factory in Solihull, a place affected by Brexit-related job losses, a quote by Boris Johnson that none of the billboard companies were willing to accept. In 2018 Johnson had responded to business concerns about a hard Brexit with a simple "Fuck business". The Birmingham Mail reported the next day the local community had reacted with fury as the billboard was near a school. But one local interviewed said "In an ideal world the billboard wouldn't be there, but in an ideal world our foreign secretary wouldn't be the type of person who thinks 'f***k business' is an acceptable response to people losing their jobs."
Guardian columnist Dan Foster did not believe the billboards have changed anybody's opinion. Specifically regarding the Brexit Party manifesto billboards, she believed them to be counterproductive and actually helped spread the beliefs. One billboard, featuring Ann Widdecombe's quote "homosexual acts are wrongful" with the headline “Target gay people”, was meant to warn voters of her homophobic beliefs. Foster called it fundamentally flawed, overlooking the fact that most people would not see it as a warning. To most it would seem like an anti-gay campaign. Led By Donkeys had pulled the billboard within 24 hours after social media backlash, acknowledged their mistake, and apologised for having caused pain to the gay community.