Abuse, rebellions, and reflections: The two Yorkshire MPs at the forefront of the Brexit debate - but on opposite sides

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Albeit on different sides of the argument, two Yorkshire MPs have been at the forefront of the Brexit debate for the last three and a half years - and before. On the UK’s first day outside of the EU for decades, Hilary Benn and Andrea Jenkyns speak to Westminster Correspondent Geraldine Scott to reflect on the struggle, and look at what comes next.

For Ms Jenkyns, one of Yorkshire’s most prominent Brexiteers, the region’s future outside of the EU is bright and vibrant, but the path to Brexit has been fraught with violence and abuse.

Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn, left, and Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns. Photo: JPI Media

Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn, left, and Morley and Outwood MP Andrea Jenkyns. Photo: JPI Media

The Morley and Outwood Tory MP, whose surprise victory in 2015 ousted Ed Balls, has been campaigning to leave the EU since far before the term Brexit was imagined.

She was a member of the Brexit Select Committee and is Vice Chair of the influential European Research Group.

But she has been fighting for the cause for much longer.

“I was involved in campaigning to have a referendum in the first place with Let Britain Decide campaign,” she said. “I remember going around my constituency with the banners and collecting signatures saying that we need to put this to bed, we need to have a decision on this.

“And so then I got involved in a referendum campaign, I was the MP coordinator for Vote Leave for the Yorkshire constituencies, and I knew something was happening.

“I remember back then, back in 2016 during the campaign, people were coming up to me and saying ‘I've never voted before for all my life but I’m going to vote for this and I’ve finally got a voice’ so I even on the referendum campaign, I really thought that Brexit was going to happen.”

Now the day has finally come she feels like the country is entering a future of “golden decades”.

But the victory has not come without costs.

“Look, it's been a tough three and a half years,” she said.

“Even now I have colleagues in the tea room who won't even sit next to me because I have been outspoken against our former Prime Minister with the Withdrawal Agreement and we've had to fight tooth and nail to really get to this moment.

“How do I feel? Relief, really. Because at the height of it, the abuse online etcetera, I got death threats, I got people writing on my office wall telling me to kill myself.”

Ms Jenkyns was also the target of abuse during the election campaign at the end of last year.

She said: “We had somebody in my office back in July, threatening to ‘rip the b****’s face off’ and I came off social media for about three months and my team managed it because I think I needed that mental space.

“And then when it really ramped up join the election, I went on a bit of a blocking spree because you know when you just can't take any more negativity.

“I've had people moaning, complaining about being blocked, but I think sometimes you just need that mental space because it can drive you crazy.

“But we've got through it. And to me this is it has been a bit of an emotional journey for me as well.”

She added: “I've noticed that since Boris Johnson won the election with a stonking majority that things seem to be a lot calmer on social media, and I'm really hoping that once today's out the way we can pull together as a country is a great country.”

It is a message which was echoed by the Prime Minister last night as he hailed the dawning of a new era for the country.

“It's an exciting opportunity, we can really be a true global trading nation,” she said.

“Because to me it's great what we can do. I've always felt that the EU can hold people back in a way.

“I care about global health issues, I've worked on stuff with polio, been across to India seeing how they've eradicated polio, and I've been across to Kenya and seeing how a child dies y every two minutes with malaria.

“And what I've always thought is countries like this, who have got great agriculture, we should be able to do free trade agreements with them in agriculture, but because of the Common Agricultural Policy of the EU, we give aid to these other countries, but what better way to you know, meet, reach the people on the ground who live in dire and very poor situations, than to actually be able to help that country thrive through free trade.”

She added: “I just think this is a great opportunity for our country and I do honestly believe It's going to be golden decades.”

But for Leeds Central MP Hilary Benn, the mood is more sombre.

In his roles as Brexit Select Committee Chairman - often coming under criticism from Ms Jenkyns - and in the act that bore his name, Mr Benn has been a key part of the UK’s journey in reaching Brexit.

While some Brexiteers called him a “traitor” or screamed he was betraying his country for trying to stop the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal, the Labour MP said he did not regret it - but did not quite go as far as saying he’d do it all again.

“No, I don’t regret it,” he said speaking to The Yorkshire Post on the country’s last full day in the EU.

“For the very simple reason that the Benn Act stopped us from leaving the EU on the 31st of October without a deal. It didn't stop Boris Johnson from negotiating a deal, it's really important to understand that.

“And the Government's own assessment said the worst possible outcome to all of this would be to leave without a deal.

“There were MPs who voted for that act, who said the moment a deal comes along that I'm going to vote for that.”

Mr Benn came under harsh criticism from his adversaries who dubbed his bill the Surrender Act.

But he said: “It wasn't about stopping Brexit altogether, it was about protecting businesses, jobs, investment in Yorkshire and across the rest of the country from the damage that would have been inflicted by no deal Brexit. And I think that was absolutely the right thing to do. So no, I don't regret it for a moment.”

Mr Benn has just been re-elected the Chairman of the Brexit Select Committee, a role which although the UK has now left the bloc will surely still be important.

“We have to accept it's happening,” he said. “But Brexit isn't done.

“And it's really important that we understand that because we're about to embark on a very important negotiation, which will determine what our future relationship is with the countries who are still our friends and neighbours on the other side of the channel.

“And this will have huge implications, the outcome will have huge implications. For businesses in Leeds and right across Yorkshire.”

Over the next year Boris Johnson and his Government will try to grind out deals with the EU on everything from agriculture and fisheries to data transfer and medicines.

“We've had an arrangement, the best trade deal we've got with any group of countries in the world, and that is going in the bin,” Mr Benn said.

“We're going to have to replace it with something else, which is going to be less good than what we've just thrown away.”

He added: “And the Government is making what has taken a very big gamble because the prime minister said we can do this basically in 10 months. Now, a lot of people say you're not going to be able to sort all of that out in 10 months. So where's that going to leave us by the end of the year?”

On the basis, he dismissed the Government’s message that Brexit was done.

“Self evidently it isn't done,” he said. “We will have left the institution but Brexit is a process. It's not a moment.

“And since nobody can answer the question, what is going to be the new basis of our economic and political relationship with our neighbours? Well, if you can't answer that question, of course, it's not done.”

He said: “At the heart of it, is this argument about are we going to stick with the EU rules or move away from them? And people say it'll be easy because we’ve got the same rules at the moment.

“On the EU side, they're saying, well, if you gain a competitive advantage by moving away from our rules, but then want to continue to have access to our market, you've got another thing coming.

“So that's why these negotiations are actually very, very complex. Because the more Government says it wants to move away from the rules, the harder it's going to be to get an agreement that will work for British business.”

After more than three and a half years of debating the issue, Mr Benn admitted he would be sad to leave the EU “along with about half the country”.

He added: “The other half the country will probably be celebrating.”

He said: “We've left a very important relationship that has helped to give us influence in the world. And there's a great debate about sovereignty, take back control.

“But in the modern world, if you want to have some control, some influence, if you want to protect the interests of your citizens and advance your interest as a country, the truth is you have to do that by working with others because we're dealing with a global disease outbreak [the coronavirus] is perfect example, climate change, the rules of trade, refugees because of threats to peace and security, refugees because the climate is changing and it's either where they used to live is underwater or its permanent drought where people are not going to stay.

“Now all of those things which ultimately have an impact on us in Yorkshire, and right across the country, you have to work with others. And so I hope that although we are leaving the European Union, that we will try and find the closest possible relationship that works for both sides in the months and the years ahead, because they are still our friends, our neighbours, on the other side of the channel, and our interests about theirs and theirs with us.”

But when asked whether he would do it all over again, he said: “You can’t unwind the past, as someone famously said, we are where we are and it is what it is.”