DAVID JONES: The genteel spa town of Harrogate was split down the middle over Brexit… but united by utter contempt for our preening political class

Emerging from a coffee morning with friends in Bettys, the famously twee and traditional tearoom in Harrogate, Jill Carrington fastened her quilted and fur-lined coat — bought on a shopping trip down south in Harrods — against the bitter chill.

Along with 49 per cent of the 96,000 voters in this genteel, prosperous, and quintessentially English town on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales, she voted Leave in the 2016 referendum — placing her narrowly on the losing side of the debate in this bellwether Brexit community.

Of course, the views of this wealthy electrical contractor’s wife — who wants Britain to regain its sovereignty and see stricter curbs on immigration — prevailed in the wider poll.

Shambles. It is a word one hears time and again when discussing the Brexit fiasco with the people of Harrogate. ‘Farce’ and ‘disgrace’ are two others.

And this week, watching our spineless, self-serving politicians attempt to thwart the will of 17.4 million people, her anger reached boiling point.

‘I think they’ve tret us very disrespectfully,’ she fumes, the brusque Yorkshire slang word for ‘treated’ somehow serving to emphasise her fury.

‘I visit London quite a lot, but it’s very different living up here. When the poll result came through, those so-called experts on TV gave the impression that we were a lot of dumb Northerners who didn’t know what we had voted for.

‘But we knew what we were doing, all right, and with what’s going on now I feel I’m even further from the Westminster bubble. It hasn’t changed my opinions one bit. It’s just made me even more bloody-minded.

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‘It seems all the MPs are against Theresa May, but who is putting up any solutions? She is doing a good job, but I don’t envy her. Nobody in their right mind would want her job in these circumstances. They should unite behind her and get on with it. The whole thing is a total shambles.’

Shambles. It is a word one hears time and again when discussing the Brexit fiasco with the people of Harrogate. ‘Farce’ and ‘disgrace’ are two others.

Whichever way they voted, whatever their age, allegiances or personal bugbears, people here are sickened by the cynical endgame being played out in Parliament.

It may be only 210 miles away down the M1, but it now feels so remote from them, and their everyday concerns, that it might as well be the Moon.

Indeed, the one sentiment that unites the otherwise polarised residents of this timelessly elegant spa town — in many ways a throwback to the great days of England, with its fine Georgian terraces, traditional independently-owned shops, and polite but plain-speaking folk — is their utter contempt for our politicians.

The noes tweeted it: The picture posted on social media of MPs waiting to vote down Theresa May’s Brexit deal 

That, and their widespread admiration for the courage, resilience and dutifulness (qualities that count for a great deal in these parts) of Mrs May.

Most townsfolk share the view of local Tory MP Andrew Jones, who backed Mrs May’s Brexit deal in the Commons despite voting Remain, saying he had ‘pledged to honour the result of the referendum and politicians should keep their promises’.

The prevailing opinion, even among Europhiles, was that Mrs May had obtained the best possible deal, that the time for talking was over and — as one office worker shopping during his lunch hour put it — ‘we should damn well have done and get on with it’.

Whiling away the morning in Caffe Nero, two friends, Fiona and Claire, said they felt ‘betrayed’ by our MPs over Brexit. ‘I think the standard of politicians has gone down 100 per cent,’ said Fiona, 45, who backed Leave partly because she believes the influx of wealthy foreign students deprived her son of a place at his chosen university.

‘You get the feeling that they are just out for themselves. You don’t know who you can trust any more.’

Claire, 39, whose uncertainty over the pros and cons of Brexit caused her to abstain from voting, agreed, saying it was ‘embarrassing’ to have MPs who spent all their time squabbling over the Brexit process while ignoring people’s basic concerns such as the shortage of police officers and the state of the NHS.

A good many people I spoke to when visiting Harrogate this week were so disillusioned that they swore they would never vote again, whether in a general election or a second referendum, which nobody I met can bear to countenance.

Worryingly, that disillusionment seemed deepest among the generation who have most to gain — or lose — from our exodus from Europe, and will shape the nation’s future; teenagers such as Ellie Watson-Hornsby and Lauren Quandt, both 19 and visiting home from university.

Ellie, who was not old enough to vote in the referendum, feels so far removed from the uninspiring men and women who supposedly serve her interests that she admitted: ‘I am oblivious to it all. The situation is a mess. We are the generation most affected by Brexit, but I feel we are not being made aware of what’s really going on.’

Although the referendum was intended to settle differences over Europe once and for all, thanks to the protracted wrangling in Westminster, the divisions in Harrogate are as intense as ever.

For three years running, the town — whose health-giving springs, stylish shops and restaurants, and proximity to the scenic Dales have been a magnet for tourists since Victorian times — was judged the nation’s ‘happiest place to live’.

It may be no coincidence that the last of these accolades was awarded in 2015, the year before the referendum; today the paroxysms of uncertainty over Brexit are spoiling friendships, causing schisms within families and even prising apart business partners.

The mood was described by Gemma Aykroyd, 42, owner of The Cheeseboard, a quaint town-centre shop offering British and European cheeses (this week’s specials include a semi-cured Spanish Manchego and a buffalo milk creation made across the Pennines in Preston).

‘When the referendum happened, we all felt very open to discussing it here,’ she told me. ‘But now it’s become a case of “let’s just not talk about it”, because we don’t know whether we are going to upset people.

‘At the time we were voting it was an interesting dinner party topic. Now you can’t mention it for fear of having an argument. Feelings are getting more heated than ever.’

Smiling sardonically, she added: ‘I go to a book club, and even they are split down the middle.’

Eager to be free from Brussels bureaucracy, Ms Aykroyd, voted Leave in the referendum.

As the pound has since fallen against the Euro, she is now paying more for the cheeses she imports from France, Germany, Italy and Spain — which comprise almost half her stock — and, should we fail to do a trade deal with the EU, tariffs could make them so expensive that she can only sell British varieties.

She is not dismayed at this prospect; on the contrary, she says her French suppliers are more worried about losing her business than she is of losing theirs; and she is excited by the opportunity of supporting our own producers.

But as she enthuses about the emergence of homegrown cheeses to compare with continental offerings (such as a soft delicacy from Suffolk that substitutes for French Brie de Meaux) a customer walks into the shop — and the ‘split’ she described is suddenly illustrated.

A woman of advancing years whose outfit and manner of speech suggest a New Age view of the world, Pat Barnes is from the other side of the divide.

‘Well, I voted Remain,’ she declares defiantly, ordering a chunk of pungent French cheese. ‘I’m very much a globalist. But it’s all the admin this Brexit process is taking that really gets me,’ she added, making clear her own disenchantment with events in Westminster.

My tour of the town had started that morning in a Wetherspoon’s pub, where the £4.99 full English breakfast pulls in a clientele whose bullish, pro-Brexit views chime with the group’s chairman, Tim Martin (this week he declared that a no-deal exit would save Britain £39 billion, enable us to regain control of our fishing waters, and eliminate tariffs from ‘thousands’ of everyday items).

Digesting his breakfast, the thoughts of Mark Woodhead, 62, a semi-retired IT worker who voted Leave — for greater autonomy — were with the Prime Minister.

‘I think Theresa May, bless, her, has had a rough ride,’ he said. ‘She inherited a lot of things that were always going to happen, and now they are blaming her for them. She’s done the best she could.’

Echoing Harrogate’s key refrain, he surmised: ‘It’s a shambles. I think the politicians themselves don’t know what’s going on.’

Sharing his table, Chris, a 71-year-old software writer, nodded, harking back to the Sixties when French premier Charles de Gaulle ‘stitched us up’ in negotiations to join the EEC — and to the ensuing decade when, Chris declared, Ted Heath sealed our demise by taking us fully into Europe.

For Mrs May, there were kind words even from lifelong Labour supporter Johnny Long, 57, a shaggy-haired pub band bassist.

‘I do feel she got the rough end of the stick because it was Cameron who left us in this mess and she is carrying the can. She’s doing the best job she could do,’ he said.

At the Turkish baths, another Harrogate landmark, Vivienne Elgie, 60, and her daughter Marie, 28, paused to express their unease before thawing out in the spa.

‘I voted Leave on the grounds of losing our democracy but I’ve fought with my conscience ever since, and if I voted now I would back Remain,’ said the mother, who ‘loves Europe’ and has many friends on the continent.

But she doesn’t want a second referendum — she just wants our squabbling politicians to carry out the voters’ will.

As for her daughter, despite employing staff from Eastern Europe in her cleaning business, Marie also voted to Leave — yet, she admitted, she was still too embarrassed to reveal this to her Remainer friends.

However, the story that perhaps best encapsulates Harrogate’s enduring divide was to be found in a high-end boutique — on Parliament Street, aptly enough — where a pair of Italian jeans will set you back £270.

Before the referendum it was jointly owned by Paul Lown, 65, and Steve Mulhaire, who is in his 50s. Both voted Remain.

Yet the confusion over Britain’s relationship with Europe, where they bought many of the designer brands they sell, has proved so stressful that the two men parted company not long after the referendum, with one retaining the original shop and the other opening a rival store nearby.

The details of this acrimonious split are complex. Suffice it to say that Mr Lown wished to keep buying from Europe, despite the increased costs and inherent risks, while Mr Mulhaire preferred ‘more stability and less flamboyance’, as he puts it, arguing that they should switch to British suppliers.

In his new boutique, he has done precisely that. But his anger towards the politicians whose posturing and procrastination he blames for causing this upheaval remains undiminished.

‘It really is terrible,’ he told me. ‘This just shows how it (the Brexit impasse) is hitting people in different ways. The thing that sticks in my throat is that the politicians don’t seem to realise how they are affecting small people like us. They are making these crazy decisions that affect the whole country.’

Shamefully, they are indeed. For when the tremors in Westminster become so seismic that they rattle cups and saucers in the civilized tearooms of Harrogate, we know our MPs are truly a shambles.


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