In the real world of my 52/48 vot­ing home town, all (bar two!) want MPs to back deal

The Scottish Mail on Sunday - - News - By LIZ JONES IN CHELMS­FORD

IF THIS were Paris, peo­ple would be set­ting fire to things. There would be vi­o­lence. The French take to the streets when they don’t get what they want. We don’t.’ I am in­deed not in Paris but in Chelms­ford, county town of Es­sex, a city that was split down the mid­dle in the ref­er­en­dum: 52 per cent voted Leave, 48 per cent Re­main.

And I’m in a bar called the Grand Cen­tral on Fri­day night with three mums who have spent the day not car­ry­ing ban­ners or break­ing win­dows, but in­stead are loaded down with stiff car­rier bags of Christ­mas shop­ping: the la­bels shout John Lewis, The White Com­pany, Top­shop, Water­stones.

I tell them I grew up here, too, and would have died and gone to heaven if these stores had ex­isted then, in the 1970s. Even this bar. They honk with laugh­ter.

But de­spite the fes­tive air, they are keen to let me know that, with all the political uncer­tainty over Brexit (just that one word prompts elab­o­rate eye-rolling and groans), and the vote on Theresa May’s deal on Tues­day, it’s not that they don’t care. It is just that they want to get on with their lives.

Sam Cartwright, 47, a learn­ing sup­port as­sis­tant, Lisa Tom­lins, 41, a med­i­cal PA, and Carly Moon, 39, a health and safety co-or­di­na­tor, are best friends, and are knock­ing back the red wine for all the world as though we’re in an episode of Sex And The City. All three voted to leave. And all three want Theresa May’s deal, no mat­ter how flawed, to be voted through. ‘End of.’

‘Even though I feel cheated that when I voted to leave I didn’t have all the facts, my feel­ing is let’s move on, deal with it,’ says Sam.

‘I’m an­gry at the mess,’ adds Lisa. ‘I don’t feel Theresa May is the right per­son, but she’s the only per­son. She put her hand up, I ad­mire her for that.’

If she loses on Tues­day, do they think she should re­sign? ‘We should have stood up to the EU more. But no, I don’t think she’ll re­sign. She’s a bit of a Mag­gie. We don’t want her to bow down to all those men,’ adds Carly, do­ing a bit of a Be­y­oncé click of the fingers. ‘If it’s re­jected, go back to the ta­ble. They will give us a bet­ter deal.’

AND a sec­ond ref­er­en­dum? ‘Noooooooo!!?? Not an­other one!’ they cho­rus, cack­ling. Should Cor­byn get a crack at the whip? ‘Nooooo!’ The trans­for­ma­tion of Chelms­ford sur­prises me – the cafes and restau­rants where once there was just a soli­tary Wimpy; the ar­ti­san street food mar­ket sell­ing ev­ery­thing from ve­gan dosas to sushi; the new bus sta­tion.

I was last here in 1975 to see The Tow­er­ing In­ferno in­side an Odeon that still al­lowed smok­ers. To­day, de­spite all the doom­say­ers pre­dict­ing the death of the Bri­tish high street, it’s vi­brant and clean and boom­ing and cos­mopoli­tan.

An­other sur­prise is that just 50 miles from West­min­ster, how far this lovely city feels from the in­fight­ing and power strug­gles of the elite. Ev­ery sin­gle per­son I talk to – bar one very ag­i­tated young man, and one can­tan­ker­ous pen­sioner – just wants the vote to go through ‘Please God’ on Tues­day, and for the coun­try to move on.

And, here’s the big­gest sur­prise of all: I hear barely one bad word di­rected at Theresa May. To a man and a woman, no mat­ter which way they voted on June 23, 2016, they are all on her side. Take El­iz­a­beth and Paul Stone, who have run a gourmet burger stall for 15 years.

‘I voted to stay in, but I feel so sorry for her,’ says El­iz­a­beth, 59. ‘Ev­ery­one is com­pletely bored by it, so let her get on with it. Stop fight­ing! Vote yes on Tues­day. No sec­ond ref­er­en­dum.’

What does she think of all the men jostling for po­si­tion around her? ‘Boris and all those oth­ers are a***holes,’ she says. We Es­sex girls don’t pull our punches.

Paul, 61, who also voted to stay in, is a fan of Mrs May: ‘MPs should vote for her deal. The pub­lic were mis­sold, but I still say no to a sec­ond vote. It’s a shame to leave, as I think the world is too small. Young peo­ple have been let down, and it won’t change im­mi­gra­tion, but let her see it through.’

I meet Melanie Adams, 38, who runs a cheese and pie stall. She too voted to stay in as she felt ‘mis­led’ by Boris, who she feels is ‘over’. De­spite the fact leav­ing will mean she will have to put up the prices of the French cheese on her stall, she still mag­nan­i­mously hopes May’s deal suc­ceeds.

‘I’m fed up with it,’ she tells me. She asks me to ex­plain the stick­ing point of the back­stop; I say ‘Um­mmm’, and re­fer to my notes. She laughs. ‘I don’t un­der­stand it ei­ther!’ she says. ‘No one does. Look, Theresa May is in an im­pos­si­ble job. She gets more flak be­cause she’s a woman.’ Who does she blame? ‘I blame David Cameron, and look what he did. Typ­i­cal man, he ran off.’

Carol Mor­ton is a 50-year-old man­ager at Ford. We are out­side a gi­ant Pri­mark; she agrees that, if Pri­mark and Zara had ex­isted in the 1970s, we’d have both been so much more at­trac­tive. She voted leave, and wants Theresa May’s deal to go through. ‘She has a hard job, and is try­ing to do her best for the coun­try. I feel sorry for her. I look af­ter 16 peo­ple in my job, and that’s hard enough.’

And if she loses, should she re­sign? ‘No, I don’t think she should. I trust her, no one else.’

Michelle Matthews is a 46-yearold busi­ness­woman, here shop­ping in River Is­land for a party out­fit with her 24-year-old daugh­ter, who squirms with em­bar­rass­ment that her mum wants to speak out on a di­vi­sive is­sue that, in Chelms­ford at least, seems per­versely to be bring­ing peo­ple to­gether.

‘I voted to leave, as im­mi­gra­tion is a prob­lem. Theresa May is do­ing her best, it’s a hard road, and I hope they vote it through. Oth­er­wise, there will be a whole new set of prob­lems.’

I’m aghast – not just at the sea­sonal ice rink, the Patis­serie Va­lerie and how well dressed and af­flu­ent ev­ery­one is when my only shop­ping op­tions as a teenager were the Levi’s stall on the mar­ket and Bonds’ hab­er­dash­ery depart­ment – but at how prag­matic ev­ery­one is.

Al­most ev­ery­one I talk to wants us all to stop bick­er­ing and to be adults. In­side Water­stones, I meet Bramwell Cross – he is 22, and works in an ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice. Why weren’t young men as hand­some as him in my day, as ar­tic­u­late and well in­formed? He blushes. ‘I voted to re­main, but I still think they should vote through her deal. What wor­ries me is the uncer­tainty of it all. If it fails on Tues­day, will there be more hate crime, more di­vi­sion? I don’t want an­other vote, though I know a lot of young peo­ple do.’

THE con­sen­sus in Chelms­ford is that ‘the me­dia want it to fail, her to go, as it will make a bet­ter story, sell papers, make us watch the news’. The vast ma­jor­ity of shop­pers I meet over the course of two days want the deal to go through: ‘If MPs vote it down, then they’re not lis­ten­ing to us,’ says one. ‘If only those in charge of us could grow up,’ a woman sell­ing crêpes (crêpes!) tells me.

I only come across two peo­ple who want the deal to fail. One is an el­derly pen­sioner who voted leave: ‘I knew what I was vot­ing for. I want us out, no deal. I think Ja­cob Rees-Mogg talks sense. May has had time to learn how to be hu­mil­i­ated, she can deal with it. I blame the politi­cians who want to re­main for this mess. Don’t for­get: May was one of them.’

The sec­ond is Char­lie Lock, a flame-haired, 20-year-old stu­dent at Es­sex Univer­sity. Char­lie is hop­ping mad at what has hap­pened. ‘I was two days too young to vote in the ref­er­en­dum. Forty-eight hours meant I had no say in my fu­ture. The deal is atro­cious. In Europe, they took just 40 min­utes to de­cide it was OK. Forty min­utes! It’s bet­ter to stay in Europe. It’s a gen­er­a­tional thing: young peo­ple like me love that the coun­try is so di­verse.’

On a crisp Satur­day morn­ing, I’m once again at the ar­ti­san food and Christ­mas mar­ket in Chelms­ford. Still no one is ri­ot­ing. It’s heads down, pin num­bers at the ready, think only of Christ­mas. I ar­rive armed with the news that a sur­vey of Tory members has found 72 per cent re­ject Mrs May’s deal and want their MP to do the same. And that Am­ber Rudd, Sec­re­tary of State for Work and Pen­sions, is talk­ing of ‘Plan B’.

I’m puz­zled, as this doesn’t re­flect Chelms­ford at all.

I give the last word to Sharon, a re­tired li­brar­ian, brav­ing the cold to hand out leaflets protest­ing at the short­en­ing of open­ing hours at the lovely old li­brary. ‘I voted to re­main.’ Why? ‘It was the fab­ri­ca­tion of Boris et al.

‘What they said wasn’t true, all that stuff on the side of the bus.’ She’s un­usual among the older Chelms­for­dians I’ve met. ‘Am I? I’m a young-think­ing per­son. The first time I ever voted was to join the Com­mon Mar­ket. I’m quite proud of that. What will hap­pen next week? I’m go­ing to quote Danny Dyer, “It’s a bit of sham­bles, in­nit.”’

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