The big story for London when the European election results are declared will doubtless be the Remain fightback – the flocking of Labour supporters to the Liberal Democrats, who topped the most recent London survey – and what that means about the public appetite for a second referendum.
But we forget the other side of the argument at our peril. One and a half million Londoners voted Leave in 2016 – more than the number of Brexit voters in the North East of England, Lincolnshire, Birmingham and Doncaster put together. The London Borough of Havering was one of the UK’s top dozen Leave strongholds. In the two recent YouGov polls on Londoners, the Brexit Party has been in second place with 20 and 21 per cent of the vote share, a few percentage points behind the leading party in each case.
Underlying this is the huge variety of Londoners who have supported a Brexit harder than Theresa May’s deal, the latest incarnation of which has just emerged. There’s the “secret professional voter” of the kind who young Brexit Party candidate Lucy Harris brought together in post-referendum social meet-ups, or who confessed their proclivities to Claire Fox. There are 2016 Remain voters who want to see democracy upheld and for the government to “get on with it”. There are residents of suburbs who identify culturally and politically with Leave-voting neighbouring counties. There are BME voters who may have backed Leave because they wanted a level playing field on immigration. And so on, in permutations which make it impossible to generalise. “London is an incredibly complex patchwork”, says London Conservative MEP Charles Tannock.
What has motivated some liberal-leaning Londoners to back the Brexit Party? Lewisham resident Adam Lake, head of communications at a climate change NGO, trustee of a refugee charity and an LGBT campaigner, announced last week he had quit the Conservatives’ approved parliamentary candidate list in disillusionment at internecine “blue on blue” attacks on Conservative Brexiters. He never imagined himself being associated with Nigel Farage, he says, but was deeply impressed with Brexit Party recruiters who tapped him up – praising their “very slick, professional” vetting process, which has approved candidates of diverse backgrounds and life experience, and picking out chairman Richard Tice for his “transparency and honesty”.
He defends the Brexit Party’s lack of a democratic structure or policies by saying that with its solid commitment to leaving the EU, it “has a more meaningful manifesto than the two [main] parties put together”. He concedes the movement’s strange coalition might not hold for long. But he thinks this new form of party, without a whipping mechanism, might prove more attractive than the traditional sort – which are always “about loyalty, your ability to deliver leaflets. It’s almost like a religious experience”.
Lance Forman, owner of family-run salmon smokery H Forman & Son and an ex-Conservative advisor, has long felt frustrated with the government and was pushed over the edge by May sitting down with Jeremy Corbyn. He sees his own political outlook as shaped by his business ordeals – his premises being gutted by fire, flooded, and then subject to compulsory purchase for the Olympics, leading to a hard battle for compensation with an alternative site. In life, “it’s not about what happens, it’s about how you deal with it,” he says. “In an uncertain world, it’s surely better to have control of your own destiny”. He accuses those who oppose a WTO Brexit of fearing change, and big business of being preoccupied with its own interests rather than the country’s.
Among the two main parties there is alarm and dismay about lack of resources and focus, and ceding ground without a fight. On the Conservative side there has been barely any campaigning – reportedly only a single box of 7-8000 leaflets has been made available for the capital. Tannock, co-founder of Conservatives for a People’s Vote has weathered a Brexiter claque at one hustings and put in time at the CCHQ phone bank (“to be honest I don’t find it so bad”). He points out the irony of Conservative voters punishing him when he’s pragmatic and would settle for a Norway-style deal and instead favouring the Brexit Party, which isn’t in a position to offer a solution to the Brexit problem. Pro-Leave Tower Hamlets councillor Peter Golds, who has also been actively campaigning, fears it is too late now for any compromise approach to Brexit.
In the red corner, trade unionist and former councillor Sam Tarry feels his party’s campaign “never got out of first gear”. The Conservatives’ and Labour’s difficulties with their Hard Brexit flanks in London differ. While Labour candidates in Havering have got the “hairdryer” treatment, according to Tarry, on Inner London estates the traditional Labour vote hasn’t shifted, Camden councillor Richard Cotton reports.