Voters in Yorkshire’s most Leave and Remain-supporting areas are united in increasing confusion about the progress of Brexit as the prospect of ‘no deal’ looms. Chris Burn reports.
Like almost 70 per cent of voters in Doncaster back in June 2016, shopkeeper Mohammed Raheel backed Leave in the Brexit referendum. Now he says he is far from being alone among his friends in having second thoughts.
The 50-year-old, who runs a clothing stall in the town centre, says: “I voted against the Government. We thought we were contributing more than the other European countries and not getting the same benefits.”
But he says the impact of the country’s decision to leave the European Union is already being felt in his line of work as most of his clothes are imported from France, with his costs going up because of the change in the exchange rate.
Mohammed says he supports the idea of a second referendum and would change his vote should it take place. “I would definitely vote a different way,” he says. “When I go to my suppliers, they are all saying it is going to get worse for trade. Most of the stuff we have comes from China but it does not go direct to the UK, it goes through France. They are putting prices up so we are having to pass that on to customers. Lot and lots of people want to remain. Lots of people I know are saying ‘We made a mistake’.”
But he believes there is little prospect of things changing as the clock ticks towards Britain’s departure date on March 29 next year. “The Government are trying to do their best but we will find out in future if the deal they are going to have is any good to us,” he says. “To tell you the truth, I don’t pay much attention because we can’t do anything. I’m hoping they find some sort of solution.”
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox – who previously claimed reaching an agreement on future trading arrangements with the EU should be “one of the easiest in human history” – said on Sunday he believed it was now most likely there would be a no-deal Brexit, blaming the “intransigence” of the European Commission. It came days after Bank of England governor Mark Carney warned the prospect of no deal was “uncomfortably high”, with its potential implications including higher retail prices, along with disruption to trade and economic activity. Theresa May has urged the public not to be alarmed at plans to stockpile food and medicines should the no deal scenario come to pass.
Recent YouGov polling suggests 75 per cent of voters believe the Government is doing a bad job of negotiating Brexit, with two-thirds of Leave voters believing Theresa May’s plan for ‘continued harmonisation’ with EU rules would cede too much power to Brussels. On the Remain side, almost 600,000 people have signed a petition calling for another vote on whether Britain commits to leaving once details of the final intended future deal with the EU are confirmed.
Mohammed’s change of heart over voting for Leave is far from universal among the voters The Yorkshire Post speaks to in Doncaster, the town with the highest Out vote in the whole of Yorkshire. More than 104,000 voters from a turnout of 151,000 people cast their ballots in favour of Leave - almost 69 per cent.
But even those who are still convinced getting out of the EU is the best thing for the country are dismayed by how things have progressed since the vote two years ago. John and Janice Sykes, both 71 and visiting Doncaster for the day from their home in North Lincolnshire, say they would vote Leave again – but have reservations about the Brexit process is going.
John, a former bus driver, says his vote was motivated by the increasing number of decisions being taken at a European level compared to when Britain joined the Common Market in the 1970s. “The Common Market is nothing like what we are doing now, with all that has been added to it over time,” he says. “It has got out of hand and a lot of countries are feeling the same way. If we do a good Brexit deal, there will be one or two others thinking about it.”
But he believes many of the promises made during the referendum campaign will not come to fruition. “The £350m a week for the NHS and controlling immigration – I don’t think it is going to happen at all really.”
Janice, who used to be a buyer for a spring manufacturer, believes Prime Minister Theresa May is doing a “brilliant job” but is being hamstrung by rows within her Cabinet and wider party. “The Government is not working together. If everybody backed Theresa May it might be different. At least she is trying to stick with it and get something done.”
But both say they are not overly concerned about the increasing volume of warnings about the impact of ‘no deal’. “I think there is a lot of trying to make people feel uneasy about it,” John says. “You hear things like you will get charged if you go to France. Well then, French people will be charged for coming here. They talk about 15 mile queues of lorries at Dover but that is happening already anyway.”
Janice adds: “The media don’t help. Every time the news comes one they are going on about what will happen. How do they know what is going to happen?”
But one couple who are concerned are husband-and-wife Derek and Linda States. The pair decided not to vote in 2016 as felt they didn’t understand enough about the issues – but say they would now back Remain. When asked to summarise how they feel Brexit is going, Derek laughs and says: “Not good.”
“I think I would vote to stop in,” he adds when asked about a potential second referendum. “We talk to a lot of people, most of them say they voted because of immigration, to keep people out. But the country is not going to run without them, especially in hospitals.”
They say they are particularly concerned about the impact on the prices of things like foreign holidays. Linda says: “We will be going to Cleethorpes on holiday next year we think.”
Jean Merritt, a 69-year-old former customs officer, was among those in Doncaster to vote Remain.
“I think the biggest mistake David Cameron made was asking people who didn’t understand it,” she says. “I want to stay but I can see how people did vote to leave thinking we would be better off.
“I think the price of food is going to rise if we don’t get any sort of deal. I spend winter in Spain and see all the fruit and veg being grown there that comes to northern Europe and the UK.
“I just think we would have been better off with what we already had. We got a lot of subsidies. I don’t fully understand what we pay in and what we get back and don’t think many people do. But it will become clear if we leave without a deal.”
Noëlle Plante, who is originally from France but has lived in England since 1989 after marrying an Englishman, voted remain and says she would do so again - but does not support the idea of a second referendum.
“I voted Remain and I still think we should Remain,” she says. “But now we need to do it. I think the media are making things more complicated than they are.”
Forty miles up the road in York – one of only three places in Yorkshire along with Harrogate and Leeds to have a majority of people backing Remain – other Remain voters are similarly convinced they made the correct decision two years ago.
Former public sector workers Elaine Harrison and Alex Thompson are firm Remain supporters. “No one is going to deal with small Britain against large Europe,” Alex says. “America has done a deal with the EU and so has Japan. I think there should be a vote on the final package. Once the negotiators come back there should be a vote to say whether we go ahead or not. Voters change their minds all the time.”
Alan and Mandy Coates, visiting York from Swansea, say they have no regrets over voting Leave – but say the current rate of progress “seems to be a disaster”. “Nothing is happening,” says Mandy.
Alan adds: “Theresa May ought to be a more firm in the negotiations, a bit more like Trump in other words. But if there was a second referendum, I think there would be a bigger vote to Leave this time.”
Sixteen months on from Mrs May calling an ill-fated general election she hoped would show the nation was coming together over Brexit, one of the few points of agreement between both sides appears to be confusion over where things are heading.
As one Leave voter in York puts it when asked how she thinks Brexit is going: “I don’t know what it means, I don’t understand a single thing about it. I don’t know what it is we voted for.”
Government hopes for ‘strong deal’
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has insisted the Government’s current Brexit plans respect both “the result of the referendum and the core principles of the EU”.
Speaking last month, Mr Raab, who replaced Yorkshire MP David Davis after his resignation in protest at Theresa May’s Chequers plan, said the UK has presented “ambitious, principled and pragmatic proposals” as they aim to strike a “strong deal” in October.
“While recognising our access will be different in future, we seek to minimise barriers to trade between the UK and the EU, with specific arrangements for financial services, tailored to our close and interdependent relationship in this particular sector,” he said following negotiations in Brussels.