In the heartland of British support for Brexit, there is growing disillusionment and concern over the country’s withdrawal from Europe.
Richard Coward hears the anger every Saturday, when he hands out Brexit pamphlets in the shopping district of King’s Lynn – a small port city in eastern England that’s best known as the birthplace of Captain George Vancouver. Mr. Coward is an anomaly in these parts. He is an ardent supporter of the European Union and the campaign for a second referendum on Brexit, a hard sell in this community which voted 66 per cent to leave the EU in 2016. Whatever the positions of residents, everyone can agree on one thing: Politicians are fumbling Brexit.
“Everybody is fed up with it,” he said. “I’m fed up with it. It has sucked lifeblood out of Britain. There’s no other way of looking at it. And unfortunately it’s not, as far as I can see, going to come to an end any time soon.”
As Prime Minister Theresa May prepares to present a new Brexit plan to Parliament on Monday, there’s a growing angst here and across the country that Brexit is turning into a disaster. Last week, members of Parliament shot down Ms. May’s Brexit deal with the EU, putting her back to square one with nine weeks to go until Britain formally leaves on March 29. She’s expected to try to modify the deal by changing the most contentious provision: the so-called backstop which guarantees an open Irish border by keeping Northern Ireland closely tied to the EU. The backstop has infuriated many MPs who believe it will keep Britain locked with the EU indefinitely, defeating the purpose of Brexit. It’s not clear they’ll accept a modified deal and in the meantime, groups of backbenchers have hatched plans to either delay Brexit, hold a referendum or cancel Brexit altogether.
Even here in a city that overwhelmingly supported Brexit, concern is rising over the turmoil and the potential for Britain to crash out of the EU without any arrangements for trade, border controls, banking and a host of other services. King’s Lynn is like a lot of places in England that voted to leave the EU. It’s a working-class city of about 40,000 people with deep roots in agriculture that largely feels ignored by politicians in London. “There is huge frustration that there is this level of uncertainty,” said Tony Bambridge, whose family runs a 3,500-acre vegetable farm east of the city with another family. “And we are sick and tired of politicians posturing. You just need to get around the table and have a discussion and find the common ground.”
Mr. Bambridge said some farmers are already feeling the impact of the Brexit impasse. European importers have started slowing their purchases of British farm products, including cattle hides that are used to make leather goods and pork ingredients for salami. “Right now, I could put seed potatoes on a lorry and I can send them to Paris or Hamburg or Rome as easily as I can to London, Birmingham or Manchester,” he said. But after Brexit, those potatoes could face long border delays, different regulations and high EU tariffs. Many farmers in the area also rely heavily on workers from Eastern Europe, but recruitment has gotten much harder amid fears that immigration rules will change after Brexit. “The politicians should have knuckled down and got this sorted out,” he said.
Mr. Coward is convinced that many Brexit supporters in King’s Lynn are beginning to worry about a no-deal departure. “They are very unsure about jumping off any cliffs,” he said. He cited a recent opinion poll that found that if another referendum were held today, 56 per cent would vote to remain in the EU and 44 per cent to leave. That’s a sharp reversal of the 2016 result that saw 52 per cent vote to leave the EU and 48 per cent to remain. But other opinion polls have come to different conclusions and even Mr. Coward doubts a majority of people in King’s Lynn would support another vote.
That’s certainly how Matthew Hannay sees it. He campaigned for Vote Leave in King’s Lynn in 2016 and he was glad to see the Prime Minister’s deal collapse. “The deal that she proposed was a half in and half out,” said Mr. Hannay, 20, who lives in King’s Lynn and commutes to London, where he works as a foreign currency broker. And he has no qualms about a no-deal Brexit. “I don’t think we shall have any problems in the long term in dealing with the European Union on WTO terms,” he said.
Mr. Hannay dismissed the idea of a referendum as undemocratic and yet another example of how the will of ordinary people is being ignored. “It is just people within the political establishment and in the corporate business class who wish to keep the status quo and they don’t want to see radical change in this country,” he said. If there were another vote, he’d work just as hard for Vote Leave and he believes support would galvanize. “King’s Lynn voted 66 per cent to leave the EU and I think we’d possibly win by a bit more now with what’s been going on,” he said.