Ordinary Leavers see Brexit they voted for running away
London Letter: The promise of fewer immigrants and more public money is fading fast
It was shortly after 7am and the cafe was already filling up nicely, with huddles of bantering builders gathered around most of the formica-topped tables. Dead or forgotten boxers and footballers looked out from the tiled walls, alongside signs listing prohibitions and restrictions, full of capitals and exclamation marks.
“ATTENTION! All customers must place their orders BEFORE taking a seat. Thank you for your patience. WE ARE CASH ONLY.”
The set breakfast of bacon, egg, sausage, beans OR tomato, tea OR coffee (NO CHANGES!) at £6 was moving fast, each order blasted out by a slight woman with a klaxon-like voice that could power a small armoured vehicle. Later in the day, when the cheerful chatter of the builders is replaced by the bitter gurgle of cab drivers complaining, the menu expands to include such delights as chicken and mushroom pie, cheese and onion pasty, fried liver sandwich, bread and butter pudding and fruit pie with custard.
Pondering this gastronomic dream of Albion, I looked up and saw the local tailor and his father, both ardent Brexiteers. A big smile and a brisk lie about the status of an overdue suit and they moved off into a corner underneath a pair of golden boxing gloves and a picture of Muhammad Ali.
Between them, they have been clothing much of parliament for half a century, including four or five prime ministers, depending on whether you count Denis Thatcher, which they do. Their little shop is a soothing retreat, half filled by a table covered with great rolls of tweed and worsted, giant scissors, spools of thread, buttons, pins, chalk and measuring tape.
During my last fitting there, however, I was arrested by the sight in a triptych of mirrors of a portly old gent with grey, drooping features disappearing into a cascade of undulating chins.
“I think we’ll leave some room in the jacket for another couple of lunches, shall we, Sir?” the tailor said.
Stung into spite, I asked him how Brexit was going.
It had the desired effect, as he launched into a lament of denunciation, complaining that Theresa May had given in to all the EU’s demands without a struggle. He saw no reason why Britain should pay Brussels a penny or why the government bothered negotiating Brexit at all. If he had his way, the prime minister would just walk away from the talks and leave the EU without further ado.
For the tailor and many other Leave voters I know, the Brexit they voted for appears to be running away from them. They wanted to take back control from Brussels and to run things their own way, which for some meant turning back the clock.
For many, there were two concrete changes they hoped for: fewer immigrants and more money to spend on public services.
The two demands were related, because the pressure on public services caused by spending cuts seemed to be exacerbated by increased demands from population growth fuelled partly by immigration.
The debate within the Conservative Party about Brexit is between those who favour a slightly looser arrangement with the EU than Norway’s, and others who want a slightly closer relationship than that enjoyed by Canada. Neither group believes that Brexit will free up much extra money, if any, for public services, and the prime minister is almost alone in the cabinet in her commitment to reduce net immigration.
One influential Conservative backbencher who campaigned for Brexit told me this week that almost all Brexiteers in his party were free-traders. They wanted to be able to strike new trade deals around the world but they expected to follow broadly the same regulations as the EU and they were relaxed about immigration.
Visa-free travel between Britain and the EU is almost certain to continue after Brexit and any trade deal is likely to include preferential terms for EU immigrants.
Meanwhile, all Europeans living in Britain before the end of March 2019 will be allowed to remain and carry on working and accessing public services.
Leave voters are unlikely to blame a disappointing Brexit on their own decision last year, but Eurosceptics who are now accusing Remainers of betrayal could soon find the charge of treason turned on themselves.