In the sprawling fallout of the “Leave” victory in the U.K.’s Brexit referendum, one incredible detail about how the referendum may have come to be to begin with has been the subject of controversy. It involves, of all places, Chicago.
This all started with a referendum postmortem by the Financial Times’ George Parker and Alex Barker, published this morning. In the piece, Parker and Barker describe the behind-the-scenes discussions in 2012 between Cameron and former foreign secretary William Hague about what a referendum would mean for the Tories. They were awaiting their flight home after the NATO conference held in Chicago that year:
Mr Cameron backed by William Hague, the former foreign secretary, concluded that the only way to hold the party together through the 2015 general election campaign was to promise an EU referendum.
The setting for that fateful decision: a pizza restaurant at Chicago O’Hare airport, where Mr Cameron met with Mr Hague and Ed Llewellyn, his trusted chief of staff and an old-hand in Brussels.
Reread that sentence.
According to Parker and Barker, the decision to go forward with a referendum that led this morning to Cameron’s resignation as prime minister, the collapse of the British pound, a rout in global markets and could yet lead to a recession as well as the dissolution of the European Union and the 300-year old United Kingdom itself—once the seat of the largest empire mankind has ever known—was made over a meal of airport pizza in Chicago.
Parker and Barker aren’t the only ones to have described a pizza summit.
In August, the Daily Mail’s Anthony Seldon also alluded to a meeting between Hague and Cameron at O’Hare:
But by spring 2012, the pressure for Cameron to commit to a referendum is virtually unstoppable. Having been initially reluctant, Osborne is won round. And on May 21 at the improbable location of a pizza restaurant at Chicago’s O’Hare airport it is settled.
Cameron sits down with William Hague and they agree to offer a referendum before the end of 2017. Osborne still has reservations. But Cameron can hold out no longer and the referendum is duly announced.
Predictably, reaction to the news that Brexit had been set in motion over airport grub thousands of miles away from 10 Downing was unkind.
And understandably so. Still, this listing from Eater of O’Hare’s dining options in 2012 suggests that Brexit could have begun even less auspiciously. Just imagine. What if Cameron had opted instead to launch the effort that would unseat the U.K. as the world’s fifth-largest economy while sipping a vanilla shake at Smoothie King? What if the door to the independence Scots may now try again to pursue after centuries of union had been opened at Burrito Beach? Isn’t it plausible Cameron may just as easily have initiated the final embarrassment of a nation that once lorded over nearly a fourth of the world’s land mass while picking cheesecorn out of his teeth at Nuts on Clark?
But hours after the Financial Times piece went up, Chicago Aviation Spokesman Owen Kilmer told the Chicago Tribune that the meeting never happened:
Kilmer said Friday that Cameron, who was in Chicago for a NATO summit at the time, was whisked straight from his private flight straight into a vehicle that took him downtown and that security measures meant that “he was never in any of the terminals at O’Hare … when he arrived or when he departed.” It’s therefore not possible that Cameron ate at an O’Hare restaurant, although he may have grabbed a slice somewhere else, Kilmer said.
And so would’ve concluded the greatest food story in British politics since Ed Milliband’s unfortunate bacon sandwich breakfast in 2014—exactly two years to the day after Cameron’s alleged pizza summit—but for the fact that Cameron’s meal was apparently observed by multiple eyewitnesses.
Slate has reached out to both Kvam and ITV’s Robert Moore and has yet to receive comment. Moore was also the author of a piece published the day after his tweet that described the phantom meeting in more detail and claimed Cameron departed Chicago on a commercial American Airlines flight:
Last night, as I passed through Chicago’s O’Hare Airport, the Prime Minister was eating at a fast-food cafe, surrounded by fellow passengers, waiting for an American Airlines flight back to London. I was with Cameron’s National Security Adviser Kim Darroch. “Austerity Britain,” he smiled.
Moore’s account raises additional questions. How would Cameron have been able to hold a private and tremendously consequential meeting while rubbing elbows with other passengers? And if Hague and Llewellyn were present, why were they not mentioned as Cameron’s National Security Adviser Kim Darroch was?
In any case, it seems that either the Chicago Aviation Authority is wrong or multiple people experienced roughly the same hallucination that evening at O’Hare, a place that, in fairness, induces transient bouts of insanity in innumerable travelers every single day.
So where would this meeting have happened if it did in fact happen? One restaurant seems like a particularly likely candidate.
Brexit was likely birthed in a Pizzeria UNO in O’Hare’s Terminal 3, the hub for all American Airlines flights. As Eater’s listing indicates, the location has been in the terminal since at least late 2012 and was the only probable sit-down pizzeria in the terminal at the time the list was compiled.
The Terminal 3 location doesn’t seem to have a page online, but reviews of UNO’s O’Hare locations in general have been decidedly mixed, with some comparing the “watery” pizzas served unfavorably with Chicago’s locally beloved deep-dish pizzas as offered at chains such as Giordano’s:
Other customers seem pleased with Terminal 5’s location, even going as far as to vouch for the authenticity of UNO’s pies:
Cameron’s meeting could also plausibly have been held at one of the two other sit-down places in the terminal serving pizza at the time—a Macaroni Grill and a Wolfgang Puck restaurant. After all, Moore says that Cameron’s meal was at a “fast-food” place and not necessarily a pizzeria. But the Grill and the Puck restaurant don’t really seem to fit the bill as “fast-food” joints, either. (Eater’s list describes them as “leisurely” spots.) It seems a good bet that the pizza restaurant specified in the Financial Times and the Daily Mail pieces was, in fact, a pizza restaurant. Terminal 3 also had a Reggio’s in 2012, but a Yelp search suggests both that Reggio’s lacks seating and that the quality of its pizza makes a Cameron meeting there simply too horrible to contemplate.
Slate has yet to hear from the food management company at O’Hare about Cameron’s meeting or plans for a commemorative plaque. But diners at the Terminal 3 Pizzeria UNO—now, it seems, an UNO’s Pizza Express—have good reason to believe their pies are being served in one of the most consequential spots in geopolitical history. Thanks to Cameron, we have an addition to make to the list of meeting places that have changed the modern world: Versailles, Yalta, Bretton Woods, and the Terminal 3 Pizzeria UNO at O’Hare.