‘I’m still in two minds about it all: this is not the Brexit I voted for’

On the main streets of Bux­ton, al­most evenly split in June 2016, there are signs of a shift in the pub­lic mood

The Observer - - News - Eleni Courea

The clouds have briefly cleared in the Peak Dis­trict and, from be­hind the counter at Ap­p­le­yard’s to­bac­conist, Martin Ols­son is greet­ing reg­u­lar cus­tomers who are tak­ing ad­van­tage of the good weather.

He is help­ing run his wife’s fam­ily busi­ness in Bux­ton, where they moved in 2002. But the year he is rem­i­nisc­ing about now is 1994, when Swe­den held its own in-out ref­er­en­dum on the EU. He voted no, but yes won by a sliver – so Swe­den went in.

“The coun­try was di­vided and I was deeply dis­ap­pointed. But a year later I be­gan ben­e­fit­ing from mem­ber­ship of the EU, when I went to live and study in Ire­land,” says Ols­son, 47.

He is hold­ing out for a sec­ond Brexit ref­er­en­dum. “Over these past two years, a lot of peo­ple have re­alised that they have made the wrong choice, like I did. If Brexit goes ahead, or­di­nary peo­ple who are just about man­ag­ing will be starv­ing.”

Just up the road Martin Lang, 61, works as a sales­man at Con­ways DIY. He is of a dif­fer­ent opin­ion. “I voted to leave in 2016 and would do the same today,” he says, “be­cause of the amount of reg­u­la­tion we have to en­dure as a small busi­ness.” He is calling on MPs to back the prime min­is­ter’s deal. “Con­sid­er­ing the op­po­si­tion she has had from her own party, I think she has done re­mark­ably well. I’m not a nat­u­ral Tory voter, but I ad­mire Theresa May.”

This di­chotomy is noth­ing new in Bux­ton. High Peak, the par­lia­men­tary con­stituency in which it lies, voted for Brexit by a 0.5% mar­gin. Now there are some signs that the mood is shift­ing the other way. The lo­cal MP, Ruth Ge­orge, is part of a group of Labour politi­cians who have been run­ning sur­veys on their con­stituents’ views on Brexit. Her lat­est sur­vey of 1,600 peo­ple, which has been up since 13 Novem­ber and is ongoing, has shown a 17% shift from for­mer Leave vot­ers to Re­main and 4% from Re­main vot­ers to Leave. In her first sur­vey, which ran be­tween Jan­uary and May, the Leave-to-Re­main swing was just 1%.

“In the spring there was very lit­tle shift in opin­ion,” Ge­orge says. “Now we can see what the ‘best deal we can get from Europe’ looks like, there is def­i­nitely a change.” She will vote against May’s deal on Tues­day, and sup­ports Labour’s pol­icy of keep­ing all op­tions on the ta­ble. In the lat­est sur­vey, 59% of re­spon­dents have backed a fresh vote.

Back on Bux­ton high street, Julie, 58, who works in re­tail and didn’t want to give her last name, says she voted to leave in 2016 be­cause of the bu­reau­cracy im­posed by EU rules. “But if I had to vote again now, I would vote Re­main, be­cause it’s all been such a mess,” she says. Ni­cola Wal­lace, 24, who works at the Univer­sity of Derby and has backed Re­main from the start, agrees: “This whole process has been a dis­as­ter – and while the Brex­i­teers claim they can get a bet­ter deal, none of them are ac­tu­ally putting any­thing for­ward.”

Other Labour MPs who have sought their con­stituents’ views in­clude James Frith, Me­lanie Onn and Sharon Hodg­son. All recorded re­cent net swings from Leave to Re­main.

Frith has rep­re­sented Bury North – re­garded as a bell­wether seat – since 2017. Last month his sur­vey of 760 peo­ple re­vealed an 8.5% swing from Leave to Re­main, com­pared with 4% the other way. More than half of those he sur­veyed backed a fresh vote on the deal. Frith says that his find­ings demon­strate how “the peo­ple of Bury do not want to give the PM a blank cheque on this deal”.

In Washington and Sun­der­land West, which voted heav­ily to leave, Hodg­son’s sur­vey of 623 peo­ple sug­gests a 24% swing from Leave to Re­main and 18% the other way. “There con­tin­ues to be a strong va­ri­ety of opin­ion in my con­stituency,” Hodg­son says. “It is clear, how­ever, that very few peo­ple are happy with the way in which the gov­ern­ment has han­dled the ne­go­ti­a­tions.” In Great Grimsby, Onn’s sur­vey of 856 peo­ple found a 13% swing from Leave to Re­main, while the change from Re­main to Leave has been around half that size.

But, as the MPs ac­knowl­edge, vol­un­tary sur­veys will tend to be filled in by the peo­ple who are most dis­sat­is­fied with the ex­ist­ing sit­u­a­tion, and their find­ings are not rep­re­sen­ta­tive. Onn says that “the vast ma­jor­ity of Grimsby res­i­dents still hold sim­i­lar opin­ions as to when they voted in 2016. There has been very lit­tle shift and peo­ple’s pa­tience is wear­ing thin.” Na­tional polling sug­gests that the re­sults of an­other ref­er­en­dum

‘Over these past two years, a lot of peo­ple have re­alised that they have made the wrong choice’ Martin Ols­son

‘This whole process has been a dis­as­ter, and none of the Brex­i­teers are putting any­thing for­ward’ Ni­cola Wal­lace

would be too close to call. De­spite this, se­nior Labour fig­ures have set out a path to­wards en­dors­ing a fresh vote on Brexit.

If May’s deal is voted down on Tues­day – an out­come that seems in­evitable – the party will seek to trig­ger a gen­eral elec­tion. If that at­tempt fails, Labour says it will call for a ref­er­en­dum on May’s deal. The ques­tion is whether enough Tory MPs will vote in favour of that.

Back in Bux­ton, Sam Bastable, 34, sells his wood­craft de­signs at a stall in­side the shop­ping cen­tre. A Labour sup­porter, he backed Brexit in 2016, but if it came to a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum he is not sure which way he would vote. He sup­ports free­dom of move­ment and thinks May has ne­go­ti­ated a ter­ri­ble deal. “It’s worse than what we have now,” he says. “I’m still in two minds about it all – be­cause this is not the Brexit I voted for.”

Pho­to­graphs by Eleni Courea for the Ob­server; Alamy

Bux­ton is in a par­lia­men­tary con­stituency that voted by 0.5% in favour of Brexit.

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