May Faces ‘Hard’ Brexit Reminder After Richmond’s ‘Soft’ Rebuke
A display of U.K., Union Jack flags fly in front of The Houses of Parliament, in London, U.K. (Photographer: Jason Alden/Bloomberg)

May Faces ‘Hard’ Brexit Reminder After Richmond’s ‘Soft’ Rebuke


(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May faces the second electoral test of her Brexit strategy in a week on Thursday, and this time it’s those who voted to leave the European Union who’ll be giving their verdict.

While pro-EU voters in London’s Richmond Park on Dec. 1 backed a candidate who pledged to do whatever she can to stop Brexit, in Sleaford, where 62 percent of voters backed leaving the EU, they want the divorce to go through.

“Our country needs to go back to the way it was when it didn’t have so many immigrants,” said Michelle Morris, 44, who voted to leave the EU after a lifetime of not bothering to take part in elections. “It’s time for a change.”

The two by-elections a week apart lay bare the dilemma for May as she tries to chart Britain’s course out of the 28-nation bloc. The country is almost equally divided, with 52 percent backing Brexit and 48 percent wanting to stay in the EU in the June referendum. The premier knows she risks losing the votes of those unhappy with the outcome of her negotiations to the Liberal Democrats in Remain areas, and to the U.K. Independence Party in Leave districts.

Shuttered Shops

While Richmond Park is one of Britain’s wealthiest constituencies, Sleaford, in the midst of the agricultural flatlands of rural Lincolnshire, shows signs of decline in the face of globalization. Shuttered shops stand alongside thrift stores in the center of town as all-day drinkers spill out of pubs to smoke on the sidewalks.

The by-election was forced when Tory lawmaker Stephen Phillips resigned on Nov. 4, citing “irreconcilable policy differences” with May after protesting against her decision to leave the EU without going through Parliament. A lawyer who had campaigned for Brexit, his resignation came on the day the Daily Mail newspaper denounced as “Enemies of the People” three judges who ruled that the government would need parliamentary permission to trigger Brexit.

“I hated the campaign that Leave ran,” Phillips wrote in the Guardian newspaper before his resignation. “I disliked most of the people who ran it. What they said was divisive, xenophobic and untrue.”

Jane Conlon, 46, a Labour voter who backed Brexit, said the tone of the campaign and its aftermath have led to racism in Sleaford, a town she previously saw as welcoming and integrated. Her opposition to the EU is about bureaucracy and unaccountability, not immigration, she said.

‘Immigrants Out!’

“We had groups of teenagers coming down the street after the referendum shouting ‘immigrants out,”’ she said. “My daughter’s at school and she’s got friends who are Muslims and from eastern Europe. The thought of people being targeted is appalling.”

EU immigrants have come to the town to work on farms around Sleaford and in factories in surrounding towns. Nearby Boston had the highest Leave vote in the country, fueled partly by resentment at immigration changing the local culture and undercutting wages.

“All these foreign boys come over: they’re good workers but they’ll take less money,” said Michael Crorken, 68, who works shifts at a chicken processing plant. “The money then goes back to their countries.”

UKIP’s Ambitions

The Conservative majority in Sleaford was 24,115 in last year’s general election, with Phillips winning 56 percent of the vote, and May’s party is confident Caroline Johnson, a local doctor, can hold the seat. UKIP, which was third behind Labour on 15 percent in 2015, is hoping to eat into the Tory majority.

“We should never regard anything as safe, but I’d be very surprised if there was an upset here,” Julian Brazier, a Tory lawmaker who traveled to the constituency to campaign for Johnson, said in an interview. “If there was going to be an upset we’d see lots of posters in windows from other parties, but it’s all very low key.”

UKIP is seeking to capitalize on confusion over May’s Brexit strategy to erode the Tory majority. Under the slogan “Let’s Make Brexit Happen,” candidate Victoria Ayling has questioned her opponent’s commitment to quit the bloc.

“Only a UKIP MP will guarantee the kind of Brexit that the people in Sleaford and North Hykeham overwhelmingly voted for,” she said on her website. Voters “are angry about the government backsliding on Brexit and want to give them a shock.”

More Information

The Conservative Party’s own supporters also appealed to May to give more detail about her plans as the EU divorce approaches.

“We don’t know what’s happening. While I don’t want her to tell us everything she’s going to do, it would be good to have just a little bit more information that wouldn’t harm her cause,” said Jim McQuade, 59, a lifelong Conservative voter who backed staying in the EU. “I’m sad we made the decision to come out, but the decision’s been made and we need to get on with it.”

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