Many in Brexit heartland Stoke-on-Trent still want to leave the EU, whatever it takes
But not everyone agrees — Pete McMahon said Brexit was a terrible idea. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
Pete McMahon gives a familiar look when you bring up Brexit — a kind of grimace followed by a roll-of-the-eyes sigh.
- The United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on March 29
- But the UK Parliament currently has not agreed to a deal which facilitates this
- In Brexit heartlands like Stoke-on-Trent, there is a growing favour for a “no-deal Brexit”
He is having a mid-morning half-pint of Guinness at a pub in Stoke-on-Trent, in the English Midlands, and explains he thinks Brexit is a terrible idea that will take Britain “back to where we were 40 years ago”.
“The average working man hasn’t got a clue about what’s going on, but they will when the cost of everything goes up,” he said.
“Britain is a great place to be if you’ve got half a brain, but a lot of people haven’t. Especially the people running the country.”
Pat and Dennis Murray said there had been too many delays in achieving Brexit. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
That has been a common refrain from both “remainers” and “leavers” who think British politicians have made a mess of Brexit, one of the most significant reforms to affect the United Kingdom in decades.
In Stoke-On-Trent, a struggling former industrial city, two-thirds of people voted to leave the European Union (EU) when the historic referendum on Brexit was held in 2016.
In a pub in the centre of town, there is still ardent support for Brexit, but there is also dismay over how long it has taken to achieve the promise of the historic split from the EU.
Leave voters Dennis and Pat Murray were euphoric at the time of the referendum two-and-a-half years ago.
Now, Mr Murray said he was frustrated that political leaders have been negotiating a “leave deal” with European politicians, which he said was a betrayal of what he voted for.
“The sooner we come out the better,” he said, while Ms Murray said politicians were just “delaying it”.
“There’s delays all along the path and it’s not clear like when we voted,” she said.
The EU has ‘driven a very hard bargain’
Tory MP Shailesh Vara has been a critic of Theresa May’s Brexit deal. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
UK Prime Minister Theresa May will begin the new year trying again to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons when Parliament returns this week.
The problem is that among politicians on both sides of the Brexit divide, the draft deal agreed with the EU is deeply unpopular.
The withdrawal agreement gives Britain a transition period to leave, and a back-up plan to avoid a hard border in Ireland in case no trade deal can be done with the EU before the end of 2020.
But it also comes with a $69 billion price tag.
Tory MP Shailesh Vara has been a critic of Mrs May’s deal, which he said was a costly, “one-sided” arrangement which could lock the UK into EU customs rules if trade negotiations drag on.
At his home in rural north-west Cambridgeshire, about two hours north-east of London, Mr Vara said now he preferred the UK leave the EU without a deal — a “no-deal Brexit”.
There have been dire warnings about the impact of a no-deal Brexit on businesses, the borders, and the cost of goods.
Theresa May has an agreement with EU leaders, but it is not popular in the UK. (AP: Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
But Mr Vara said that was mostly “project fear”, and no-deal was a popular option for his constituents who overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU.
“I am just very saddened that the United Kingdom, one of the strongest economies in the world, is prepared to sign up to such a deal when we really should be saying to the EU this is not good enough,” he said.
Mr Vara was the Northern Ireland minister until mid-November when he resigned in protest over Mrs May’s draft deal, a decision he described as difficult but necessary.
“The EU were never convinced that we would leave without a deal. They’ve driven a very hard bargain,” he said.
The Brexit pub crawl drumming up support for a ‘no-deal’
Wetherspoons pub chain owner Tim Martin is a prominent leave campaigner. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
With little over 12 weeks until the Brexit deadline set at March 29, the UK Government is running out of time to get a deal agreed in the Parliament.
If no deal is struck, that would please staunch Brexiteers.
Back in the pub in Stoke-on-Trent, multi-millionaire pub magnate and prominent leave campaigner Tim Martin has arrived to sell the merits of a no-deal Brexit.
“They kept saying again and again if we don’t do a deal with the EU it’s a cliff edge … and I think it’s nonsense,” he said.
On a Brexit pub crawl across Britain, Mr Martin is visiting leavers and remainers in his pub chain Weatherspoons, which runs more than 900 venues across the UK.
Mr Martin has also begun replacing European spirits and beers with liquors from elsewhere, including Australia, to prove the point that Britain need not be reliant on Europe.
Wetherspoons pubs have begun replacing its products with those from outside Europe. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
Brexit voters, he said, thought it would be relatively simple to leave the UK and have told him they are surprised that “politicians have made such a meal of it”.
“I thought the only way to get around the metropolitan elite was to get out to people on the ground,” he said.
The Bank of England has warned that a no-deal scenario, which would be an abrupt exit from the EU, could trigger worse consequences for the UK economy than the financial crisis of 2008.
Despite the gloomy projections, Olivia Utley, deputy editor of news site The Article, said the Government was actively preparing for a no-deal to end ties with the EU.
“We could use that money to help patch up whatever problems arise from a no-deal, also we could start making proper trade deals with the rest of the world,” she said.
Olivia Utley said the UK Government was actively planning for a no-deal Brexit. (ABC News: Lincoln Rothall)
Regrets? Brexit voters have had a few
In 2016, Dami Olatuyi held a very different view on Brexit.
In the lead-up to the historic referendum, he was working for a “Vote Leave” MP and actively helped to campaign for an EU exit.
“I felt that there was more optimism on the Vote Leave side of the campaign,” he said.
“I thought they had greater ideas about what the UK could be after we left the EU and so I kind of fell for that ambitious optimism that they presented.”
Then the Brexit hangover kicked in — not long after the referendum, he started regretting his decision and now believes he voted from a position of “ignorance”.
“I remember thinking, ‘What have I done?’ I remember thinking I didn’t expect to win. I remember thinking that maybe I made the wrong decision,” he said.
“I didn’t feel too good about it then. I tried to make peace with it in the following weeks after the referendum but gradually over months I think it became clear that we’d made the wrong decision.”
He has since joined a group called Remainer Now, made up of thousands of others across the country who have changed their minds and now want to remain in the EU.
They are advocating for a second referendum — one where the British people can decide on the terms of an EU exit, a so-called “people’s vote”.
“I was one of the people who was particularly responsible for putting us in this situation and I felt I had to try and do something about that,” he said.
“So, I think, it shouldn’t be too late to say hold on, this isn’t exactly what we signed up for.”
But Mr Vara, who admitted that trust and admiration of politicians was not at a high point in the midst of the Brexit debate, said he believed a second referendum would be damaging for democracy in Britain.
“17.4 million people in the largest exercise in the UK’s history thought we ought to leave, and that’s what we ought to be doing,” he said.