“It’s not that I don’t agree with Brexit. The question again is, what is Brexit?” In one pithy remark, Kelly Matthews summed up the mood in Birmingham, as the UK’s exit from the EU next year looms larger than ever.
With just 264 days to go until what Brexiteers dub “Independence Day”, there is a palpable sense of unease among the public in Britain’s second city, and in the wider region beyond.
The West Midlands saw the highest ‘Leave’ vote of the entire country in the EU referendum two years ago. On the back of a huge turnout, a massive 59.3% wanted to cut ties with Brussels for good. Some 29 out of its 30 separate areas backed Brexit.
Yet with local manufacturers like Jaguar LandRover warning this week of possible job losses if Theresa May gets the wrong kind of Brexit deal, uncertainty abounds.
The HuffPost Listens to Birmingham project has revealed that many local people, no matter which way they voted in 2016, are united by a sense of frustration at the lack of clarity on what comes next.
The Prime Minister finally tried to come up with some answers on Friday, as her Cabinet ministers agreed what looked like a ‘soft’ Brexit, albeit with a complex system of rules and regulations that tries to keep the UK as close as possible to the EU.
But while the politicians played games of intrigue and ambition, the contrast could not have been greater between the goings on at May’s Chequers opulent country home and the streets of Lozells in inner city Birmingham, where unemployed Kelly lives.
As well as the warning from Jaguar LandRover, this week saw a new report by the IPPR think tank that forecast Brexit would hit lower-income groups in the West Midlands particularly hard in the pocket.
Household bills of people living outside London could soar by up to £1,961 a year because they rely more on food items and other goods that are likely to suffer price hikes.
Those who voted ‘Leave’ in large numbers two years ago were not put off by the so-called ‘Project Fear’ deployed at the time, and for some the warnings since the referendum feel more theoretical than real.
Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP for Edgbaston who helped Boris Johnson lead the Vote Leave campaign, says that her Change Britain group has run consistent polling since 2016 and has found virtually no evidence that anyone has changed their minds.
She adds that around 10% of those who voted Remain were ‘reluctant Remainers’ who were indeed scared off by the stories of job losses and a crashing pound. “These were people who would have voted for Brexit but who were affected by Project Fear. Our polling shows they are now the ones who are asking most ‘why haven’t we left yet?’”
Stuart also thinks there was something deeper about the West Midlands Brexit vote that many politicians missed.
“The thing you have to know about Birmingham is that instinctively it is a contrary city. Always has been, if you go back to Joseph Priestley and James Watt and the Lunar Men [inventors and philosophers who powered the industrial revolution]. It’s edgy, it doesn’t go with the flow, it’s fiercely independently minded.”
That rebel streak was underlined by one local resident HuffPost talked to this week. Simeon Moore told us: “I was kind of hoping that Brexit would happen and that’s only because I kind of believed that the establishment and didn’t want it to happen.
“For me, it wasn’t really about leaving Europe, it was about showing that the power is with the people and not with the establishment. So, I was kind of pleased with it for that reason.”
Stuart agrees. “The West Midlands is always the place that’s your weather vane, that’s why it’s the battleground for general elections. The extraordinary thing about Birmingham is we did the bare minimum of campaigning and that’s why on the night I went ‘Wow!’ when I saw the results.”
Theresa May certainly didn’t go ‘Wow’ when she saw the results of her snap election disaster of 2017. She lost not just her Commons majority, but also her mandate for a ‘hard’ Brexit.
But again, the West Midlands bucked the trend. Despite the rising Corbyn ‘surge’, the Tories won backing from former Labour voters who had moved from UKIP in recent years.
Walsall North turned blue for the first time in nearly 40 years, while Ian Austin in Dudley North held on by just 22 votes. Even before the snap election, the West Midlands also narrowly elected a Conservative metro Mayor, Andy Street.
Street made clear during a HuffPost live event this week that he felt the region’s Leave voters didn’t vote to make themselves poorer.
Jaguar LandRover (JLR), which employs thousands at its factories in Castle Bromwich and Solihull, and has its HQ in Coventry, fired possibly the sharpest warning shot when its boss said a ‘bad’ Brexit deal would give him no option but to move elsewhere in the EU. One in three cars exported from the UK are Jaguars or LandRovers.
Street said he’d been personally told of the dangers too. “This has been a critical success story to the West Midlands, the revival of JLR over the last decade. There are definitely decisions that the board of JLR are waiting to take which will affect future investment in those plants.”
“What we have been told is that investment that could come here will not come here and, whilst the car industry is changing so fast, that would mean over time, there would be less jobs. It is very straightforward. And it’s not just about JLR itself, it is about the whole supply chain.”
A recent study by the University of Birmingham found that the West Midlands’ very specific business and manufacturing sectors are more sensitive and susceptible than other regions to any changes in UK-EU trade relations.
Professor Raquel Ortega Argiles, of Birmingham Business School, said: “The most obvious West Midlands industry which is closely integrated with European markets is the automotive industry, but aerospace, biosciences, nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals are all significant players too.
“Many of these sectors are running sophisticated ‘Just-In-Time production’ and logistics systems which are simply impossible to maintain in the face of customs or border checks.”
Her colleague Philip McCann added: “The appearance of such border frictions post-Brexit would undermine these production and delivery systems and would fundamentally call into question the UK presence of many of our flagship businesses.
“The relocation away from the UK of just one of our major firms would cause major damage to the integrity of our local supply systems and more widespread relocations would be devastating for the West Midlands economy as a whole.
“These advanced supply systems - or more properly advanced global value-chains, take decades to develop and construct, but the imposition of customs or border frictions could render them obsolete rapidly. These are real risks for the West Midlands.”
Of course, many businesses say that they also rely on a smooth flow of skilled people as well as trade. The Government’s statement from Chequers had a line that suggested a blurring of May’s red line on free movement of migrants: “UK and EU citizens can continue to travel to each other’s territories, and apply for study and work”.
But many who voted ‘Leave’ in the West Midlands did so precisely to get immigration down, or at least to take control of it.
Daniel Barker told us: “The only thing we wanted was to stop immigration and they haven’t mentioned it since Brexit.”
And when Boris Johnson toured with his infamous big red bus, he often cited a comparison that hit home with some voters: “Since 2004, 1.25 million people have been added to the population due to EU migration. That is bigger than the city of Birmingham.”
A Cabinet minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, told HuffPost that immigration was one of the areas where business and the Government were in agreement that change was necessary to respect the referendum vote.
“Everyone in business understands that one of the least ambiguous things about the referendum was that you needed to have control of immigration, nationally,” they said.
“There’s a lot of interest in what your policy will be, but there’s a respect for the fact that it will be decided here, not in Brussels.”
One teacher at a local sixth form said that her own pupils were quite open about the motivations of their parents and grandparents in voting Leave.
“I am often left shouting at the television when discussions about Brexit are being conducted,” Steph [not her real name] told HuffPost.
“I’m a black, female teacher who works in a deprived part of Walsall. Discussions about Brexit in the London-centric national press do not appear to reflect the reality in areas like the place in which I work.
“My students have told me horror stories about the reasons why their family members voted to leave the EU and very few are based on the notions of sovereignty and trade deals.
“In all honesty, I really don’t think some Leave voters know or care about such concepts.”
She said the justifications for Brexit votes cited by her students include: to help the NHS because the Polish are using too many resources; to save the cash the UK spends to be part of the EU; to stop Muslims from coming to the UK; to give more jobs to British students if fewer Romanians are here.
Steph - whose nephew works for Jaguar LandRover - added: “My students will tell me the reality of the situation, stuff from the parents and grandparents, some of which I’m not sure they should tell me.
“I’m not sure if people realise the implications and I’m not sure they’re that interested in Brexit any more. It’s a case of get on with it, but there’s so much more to it than that.
“There’s one lad who said his grandparents told him they voted Leave for him to get more job opportunities and he was devastated by that. They thought they were doing him a favour but in reality he felt they were taking away his opportunities. He was quite resentful.
“A lot of the kids are white working class. They were 16 and not old enough to vote in the referendum and they kept asking ‘do you think we will have a chance to have our say?’”
Alice Spencer, 21, said her sister had been made redundant only this week because her firm were moving to Poland.
“It’s because of the uncertainty around trade and stuff here, so I just think it’s scary because nobody knows what’s going to happen.
“I think if businesses are going to move then it’s going to be so much harder to find jobs and stuff, which is really worrying me because I just graduated.”
The West Midlands’ often prides itself on its racial diversity. But when austerity bites and jobs are at a premium, tensions have emerged.
An ethnic breakdown of the referendum voting figures suggested that some second or first generation migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh backed Leave, while the Afro-Caribbean community tended to vote Remain.
Steph said there was no doubt about the intentions among some. “A couple of Bengali students of mine said that influential people in their community said Leave was the right thing to do.
“They were saying ‘We will have fewer Eastern European immigrants and people from the Commonwealth can come over and take their jobs’.”
Criticism of migrants from Poland and elsewhere came up when HuffPost interviewed local members of the south Asian community.
Inderjit Singh said: “This area, if you look, everybody voted in favour for the exit. The reason is, when the European community coming in this area, crime increase, burglary increase, every day on the roads, people drinking. That’s the reason our community, especially Asian community, they fed up.
“They said, “we came from Asia doing hard work, day and night, and people coming from Europe they looted everything and go back.” That’s the reason this area voted for the exit.”
Comedian Shazia Mirza, who was born in Birmingham, said she was shocked at the Leave vote, blaming what she calls “immigrant on immigrant racism”.
She said: “Some of them see the new influx of immigrants from eastern Europe and think, ‘Hang on, we were here first. We can’t have the immigrants coming over here stealing the immigrants’ jobs.’”
In Birmingham’s ‘Balti Triangle’, a cluster of restaurants south of the city, the mood may be turning, however.
Zafar Hussein, the manager of Shababs restaurant, says it’s not just the unusually scorching summer that is suppressing business of late. Brexit too is having an impact.
Sitting in the restaurant his father established after coming to the UK from Pakistan in the 1960s, the 33-year-old is decidedly unhappy with the Conservatives – a party he voted for in 2015, but didn’t back in last year’s snap election.
“It’s like we don’t speak the same language. I won’t be voting for them next time, and my family won’t be either,” he says.
Hussein has seen goods and produce rise in price as the pound falls in value, and eastern European migrants who worked as waiting staff leave the UK as it is no longer as financially attractive.
But what about the Leave campaign narrative that quitting the EU will allow the UK to reengage with the country of his father’s birth and other Commonwealth nations?
“I don’t really believe that happening to be honest,” he says, adding: “The way it was before I think that was a perfect model - even for us.”
It’s a view repeated by business owners – be they restaurateurs or bridal dress tailors – throughout the Balti Triangle, formed by the streets of Ladypool Road, Stoney Lane and Stratford Road.
Choudhry Ramzan, 33, who manages Doli clothes shop, was also against Brexit and unsold by the notion it will lead to greater engagement with the Commonwealth.
He puts it simply: “The EU is a neighbour. Pakistan and India are not a neighbour.”
He does, however, believe the UK’s immigration system could be fairer, with more emphasis on the skills a person has instead of where they come from.
“If you need skilled people it doesn’t matter if skilled people are living in Africa, Pakistan or the EU. You come work for us, you have the best person,” he said.
Restaurant owner Usman Afzal Butt, 38, was born in the UK and has Pakistani heritage.
He had never even heard the Leave claims of greater Commonwealth engagement after Brexit, and is more concerned with getting vegetables delivered to his restaurant on time than the UK firing up relations with its former Empire.
“In the winter we rely on a lot on the European Union, through the whole year actually,” he says. “A lot of the veg produce is from Holland, Spain, France and a bit from the Far East. If we exit from Europe it’s all going to go up isn’t it.”
Butt gives a concrete example of how Brexit could hurt his business – particularly any deal which leads to more paperwork and delays at customs checks:
“In the summer you can get a box of English coriander for £4, that lasts a couple of days. In the winter, because we buy from Europe – Cyprus - it goes up to £17. If we leave Europe it could go up even more.”
While workers and business owners in the Balti Triangle are happy to talk about Brexit, it’s clear that it’s not a subject which dominates their normal conversations.
Nadib Tazeem, owner of Sahahi Qila restaurant, is happy to admit that it’s not something he has a particularly strong view on.
“I am a bit like Jeremy Corbyn – I don’t know what is happening,” he says with a smile, adding: “I won’t comment on it because we are not out of it yet. Everything is business as usual.”
Bushran Bibi, 24, who works at the House of Guidance shop voted to Remain, but tells HuffPost UK: “Nobody really cares.”
When asked if she’s noticed a change in attitude to people with Asian heritage since the referendum, she replies: “To be honest you’re the first white person I’ve seen on this road in about two years!”
While it is hard to find anyone in the Balti Triangle positive about Brexit, the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce is determined to take advantages of any new opportunities.
It has established a Commonwealth branch to help tap into a group of nations with a combined population of 2.3billion.
Henrietta Brealey, Director of Policy & Strategic Relationships at the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce, is confident the UK will be more open to the Commonwealth after Brexit.
“By 2020 it is forecast that the Commonwealth will have more than a billion middle class consumers. That’s a big market,” she says.
“Currently only 9% of British exports go to Commonwealth nations. When you think that the EU only has a population of 500million but around 44% of our exports go there it certainly suggests a great deal of untapped potential.”
Back at Shababs restaurant, Zafar Hussein reflects on who he will vote for at the next election.
“I think I would vote Labour. I think Jeremy Corbyn is alright. I think Labour has got my vote next time,” he says after a pause.
“And if Labour promised to stop Brexit?” HuffPost UK asked. “That would make the deal,” Hussein said loudly, throwing his arms up in the air. “Everyone in Birmingham definitely would vote Labour - 100%.”
Fear of a Corbyn government is what focused minds among Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers this week, in the knowledge that any challenge to May’s leadership could trigger a snap general election.
And it turns out that the Prime Minister’s Chequers country house discussion wasn’t as far removed from the realities of daily life in the UK’s second city as some feared.
One Cabinet minister said that “jobs, jobs, jobs” was the focus of many present, with the recent Jaguar LandRover and other manufacturers’ warnings raised.
The West Midlands, as well as Wales, both areas which voted Leave, were repeatedly cited.
“It wasn’t a predictable Brexiteer/Remainer set of contributions. Several people from both starting points talked about the importance of jobs in all parts of the country,” the minister said.
“Several people from both sides raised that, that was one of the striking things of the discussion.”
A key moment came when one prominent Brexiteer said that May’s new customs and trade proposal, which aligns the UK closely to the EU on goods rules, was acceptable precisely because it would protect jobs.
“There were Brexiteers that said the point of Brexit for them was not about having a different specification for any motor car in Britain, compared to Europe, which was never going to happen anyway.
“It’s not what Brexit was about, to have different regulations of widgets between here and the rest of the European Union.
“They said the referendum campaign was not all about different products standards, it was about freedom of movement, it was about setting our own laws, it was not about that.
“The West Midlands was mentioned several times throughout the day. Many people voted Brexit, but you’ve got an economy there that benefitted from manufacturing and sophisticated processes with lots of to and fro from ports in the EU. Reconciling those is the national task, in a way.”
Kelly Matthews, who is still looking for a job herself, may be relieved that the Government are finally getting round to saying what Brexit actually is, and what it is not.
And she may take comfort from the fact that the West Midlands has at least forced the politicians to sit up, listen and get on with the job.