Inside The Community That Voted Hardest For Brexit And Now Stands To Lose Most

People in Thorntree, a small suburb of Middlesbrough, voted 83% in favour of leaving the EU. Now their region is facing the harshest economic impacts in the country. Have they changed their mind?
Linda Kime at Thorntree Community Hub tries to square the community's huge Leave vote with the damning Brexit impact assessments
Linda Kime at Thorntree Community Hub tries to square the community's huge Leave vote with the damning Brexit impact assessments
Chris Booth for HuffPost UK

“I think a lot of people definitely feel betrayed,” says grandmother Linda Kime, sipping her tea as we discuss how Theresa May is handling the Brexit negotiations.

The 56-year-old manages a community centre in Thorntree, a small suburb of Middlesbrough with one big claim to fame - it returned the highest Brexit vote in the country, an eye-popping 83%.

Today I’m not asking about the referendum, however, but the stark figures in the Government’s leaked Brexit analysis.

It shows the North East will take a 16% hit to growth under a no-deal scenario, an 11% hit under a free trade deal and a 3% hit should the UK stay in the single market. Perversely, the Government report concludes, Brexit could hurt most the region that most supports it.

Has anyone changed their mind?

“I think it was a very difficult decision to make and though people did bite the bullet, the majority feel now that what they wanted hasn’t come to pass,” Linda says.

“There has been no development. All that is happening is that Brexit is completely occupying the Government. It just caused a huge sandstorm.

“I’ve had people come into the centre and say, ‘The only reason I voted out was because of that big red bus which said all of the money would go to the NHS’.

“But then they only said that they ‘could’ fund our NHS, not that they will. It was all lies.”

Jackie Webb, 58, a bereavement support officer at a homelessness service and a former nurse, agrees a change is in the air.

“I think people’s minds have been slowly changing since the vote went in,” she says. “I don’t think they were really aware of the impact it could have.

“Some of my family are starting to change their minds. And it’s not just about my relatives, it’s about our children, and their children’s children.”

But while the economic impact assessments might have sent shockwaves through the Westminster bubble, for many it just didn’t register.

Gavin Rawlings lays bare the level of disconnect.

Asked how the Brexit negotiations are going, the teacher says: “I haven’t watched the news since June last year. I am totally tuned out from the media.

“I’m just not interested.”

Teacher Gavin Rawlings has no regrets about his Leave vote
Teacher Gavin Rawlings has no regrets about his Leave vote
Chris Booth for HuffPost UK

He does not see his community reflected in the media and says the cultural divide has yet to be bridged.

“I think what [the Brexit vote] exposed was the massive difference in culture between the North and London,” he says. “The media in this country portrays things from a London point of view. Every advert that I see is of a mixed race family – and that just ain’t the case up here.

“Everything you see is based on how they see it in London. I feel like multiculturalism is shoved down your throat.”

“Things get worse before they get better”

- Gavin Rawlings, teacher

Gavin has no regrets about backing Leave, regardless of what the impact assessments could do.

“Things always get worse before they get better and we will be in a much more competitive position once we are out of Europe and free from Brussels,” he says.

“At the end of the day, there will be other markets out there – New Zealand, Australia, for example, are chomping at the bit to do business with us.

“In the North East, we are competitive. A lot of our industries are worldwide – our engineering gets shipped all over the world – and leaving Europe is not going to stop us dealing with Saudi Arabia or the Americans.”

Asked what will replace the lost growth, Gavin says, with an optimistic shrug: “Who knows. There is plenty of small, go-getting businesses out there.

“Teesside is quite an area for gaming, for example.”

Jackie Webb says the North East started changing its mind as soon as the vote was called.
Jackie Webb says the North East started changing its mind as soon as the vote was called.
Chris Booth for HuffPost UK

Asked if he thinks the Brexit referendum was an unfair vote, he adds: “It’s just the same as a General Election, both sides tell lies.”

Ian Perkins, 62, is another Brexit supporter not experiencing buyers’ remorse.

He is minding his wife’s store - Grace’s Craft Shop - while she is in hospital receiving treatment for cancer.

“I voted to leave because I wanted more money for the NHS,” he says. “I voted Leave so if it goes wrong you can blame me.

“I don’t regret it. I thought what we had wasn’t working so we should try something different. There are no jobs here and we just get ignored.

"I voted Leave so if it goes wrong you can blame me," says ian Perkins, whose wife Grace is being treated for cancer in the NHS
"I voted Leave so if it goes wrong you can blame me," says ian Perkins, whose wife Grace is being treated for cancer in the NHS
Chris Booth for HuffPost UK

“This is a great country and I think we will be better off out, but if it really starts to go wrong we can just go back in.”

Brexit is not simply a question of jobs and trade, says Gavin. It’s about power and who holds it, he says.

“I didn’t like the power that was amalgamating in Brussels,” he says. “They are completely nameless, faceless people who are making decisions that affect the lives of everyone in this country. I am glad we are turning our back on that.

“I wanted more freedom for our country, on a national and a regional level. I want to go a step further and devolve power not just from Brussels but from London, too.”

Pulling control down is an understandable impulse for people living somewhere like Teesside.

Middlesbrough has been hit hard by austerity and the loss of the steelworks in nearby Redcar
Middlesbrough has been hit hard by austerity and the loss of the steelworks in nearby Redcar

The area’s pride is also still smarting from the loss of SSI steelworks, in Redcar, which closed in 2015, ending 170 years of steel-making in Teesside and resulting in the loss of 2,200 jobs.

But warnings about the North East economy are not confined to UK civil servants.

Japanese ambassador Koji Tsuruoka has said a bad trade deal could see firms desert the UK. This is a stark statement indeed for a region that boasts a strong connection with the Far East.

Hitachi and Komatsu employ thousands in the region - as do the firms who supply their plants.

And while the North East’s largest employer overall is the NHS, its biggest private sector employer is the Nissan car plant, in Sunderland, where more than 6,000 people work, most of whom voted to Leave.

The North East has a high unemployment rate - 5.2% - and exports to the EU more than any other region.

All of that outlined, optimism is nevertheless in abundant supply among Leavers and Remainers.

HuffPost UK reporter Rachel Wearmouth inside Thorntree Community Hub with Gavin Rawlings, Linda Kime and Jackie Webb
HuffPost UK reporter Rachel Wearmouth inside Thorntree Community Hub with Gavin Rawlings, Linda Kime and Jackie Webb
Chris Booth for HuffPost UK

Linda, who voted Remain, notes the region survived the de-industrialisation of Margaret Thatcher’s reign.

“The resilience of the North East has been built up over years,” she says. “We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow but we just have to deal with the situation.”

Any idea of a re-run of the vote is for the birds, she says.

“I don’t think there should be a second chance to vote, the people have made their decision. I worked on the night of the referendum and I counted the votes. I know the difference between the General Election and the Brexit vote and it was a massive difference.”

Shops in Thorntree
Shops in Thorntree
Chris Booth for HuffPost UK

UKIP member turned Tory councillor Steve Turner led the Leave campaign in the region. He says that claiming North East folk do not understand what they voted for is wrong.

“Anybody who suggests that the North East is stupid has never spent any time in the North East,” he says. “The one thing the North East will do is stand by what it believes in and it will do what it thinks is right, whatever comes along.

“People in the North East voted to leave because they are not afraid of change and they want an opportunity that they don’t see coming from staying in the EU.

“Regarding the economic impact assessments, the people that I’ve spoken to from the North East have said that even if these things do come to pass, even if the economy doesn’t grow as quick as it possibly could do, in their eyes it is a price worth paying for a better future.”

Turner points to promised investment by Sirius Minerals as having the potential to add 20% of growth to the regional economy. The company is building a £2.5bn mine south of Whitby and a processing plant in Teesside.

Brexit Secretary David Davis was also in the region last month to trumpet plans to transform Teesport into a free port, something which many hope will arrest any decline.

Despite this, Turner admits the Government’s figures on Brexit damaging the North East are “not going to be viewed positively” by some.

He says: “I’m not one of these that thinks everything is going to be sweetness and light if we leave the EU, there will be challenges.

“I understand that a lot of people will feel concerned and feel that potentially they are going to be worse off. I have friends and family who feel that way.

“But the overriding feeling from people I speak to is that they generally just want us to get on with Brexit – good, bad or indifferent.”

Jude Kirton-Darling, a North East Labour MEP, is concerned about attitudes towards North East Brexit voters.

“It makes me so angry that it is always the North East that gets a raw deal,” she says. “And I’m also angry that the reaction from some very ardent Remain voters, is ‘oh well, you voted for it so you deserve to be hit the hardest’ because I think that negates all of the context of the Brexit vote.

“I think the Leave vote in the North East was not driven by a deep understanding of how the EU institutions work or our relationship with them.

“I think it was driven by politicians making decisions too far away from them and they couldn’t influence their lot – and a referendum is a way of showing your frustration with how you are being governed.

“It is a litmus test of a country, and it showed that the UK is not a very happy country, in my view.

“To take that as a mandate for a Brexit that will hit those people the hardest makes me really angry.”

She admits expert analysis does not hold much sway on the ground these days.

“I think it’s fair to say that people are a bit skeptical about economic forecasts and about studies coming out,” she says. “What’s striking, though, is the increasing number of economic impact assessments.

“I think for a part of the North East population the penny is starting to drop – we’re going to be the worst affected part of the country. I think they’re starting to get the message that it is not all going to be sunny uplands.”

She is hopeful any damage to the economy can be minimised with a fresh vote of some form.

“I think the momentum is building for some kind of voice around the final agreement,” she says. “I don’t think there is an appetite for a second referendum on the same terms, but there is increasing appetite for a way for people’s voices to be heard around the second agreement.

“That might be ensuring that there is proper parliamentary process or a potential General Election or a referendum on the final deal with Remain being an option.

“When you’re faced with evidence about how much economic damage this could do then it is irresponsible as politicians to put your foot down on the accelerator and rush towards the wall.

“I think politicians also have to start being a bit more honest about what the implications of Brexit are.

The Institute of Economic Development, a think tank, says the Government analysis would mean cost the North East 200,000 jobs - one in six.

“We are already the region with high unemployment,” Kirton-Darling adds. “The jobs that we are talking about are high-quality jobs – because jobs in manufacturing and export industries are well-paid, decent jobs.

“We are seeing a constant undermining of the regional economy. We need more good-quality manufacturing jobs and leaving the single market and the customs union directly hits that, never mind financial services jobs.

“We always focus on car manufacturing because it makes a good picture. You can go into a factory and see the line, but nobody talks about the thousands of jobs in financial services in the North East - for example we have Virgin Money based in Newcastle.”

Time is running out to retain investment, says Kirton-Darling, as she calls on Theresa May to offer stability.

“We are hearing behind-closed-doors from businesses in the North East that every multi-national now has contingency plans based on worst-possible outcomes,” says Kirton-Darling.

“There is a point where it tips and you create an inevitability and a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“Talking to North East business, they say that if the uncertainty continues any longer then you end up with hard Brexit as an inevitability because even if the Government changes its mind, businesses will make the decisions and they will decide to move their production elsewhere anyway.”


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