'Scottish Thatcherite' who lives in France becomes Brexit party MEP

Helen Pidd North of England editor


A “Thatcherite Scottish Tory” who lives in France will become one of the Brexit party’s first MEPs after a strong showing in north-east England.

Brian Monteith, a Conservative member of the Scottish parliament between 1999 and 2007 and a columnist for the Scotsman newspaper, said it was “neither here not there” that he lives in Trevien in southern France.

He was one of two Brexit party candidates to win in the north-east. The other was John Tennant, a former Ukip aide who once praised a Ukip MEP for using a Nazi slogan to insult a German colleague in the European parliament.

The region’s third seat was retained by Labour’s Jude Kirton-Darling, who said Monteith’s French address showed “the hypocrisy of the Brexit party”.

The party’s success was unsurprising in a region where only one local authority, Newcastle, voted to remain in the 2016 EU referendum, and that by a margin of just 0.7%. Nigel Farage’s new party won 240,056 votes, twice that of Labour, which won 119,931. The Liberal Democrats were a close third, on 104,330. The Greens were fourth on 49,905, ahead of the Conservatives (42,395), Ukip (38,269) and Change UK (24,968).

In an interview with the Guardian, Monteith insisted he was not a hypocrite in standing for a party that wants to end freedom of movement in Europe. He said it was “not unusual” to live in a different country from the one in which you are seeking election, citing “my old friend David Steel”, the Liberal politician who in 1989 accepted an invitation from his Italian counterparts to stand for the European parliament.

“So it’s not unusual and, in fact, I was already in the throes of moving house back to the UK when I was invited to stand. The fact that France is my address as my main residence is neither here nor there,” said Monteith, who quit the Conservative party in 2005 after a row with the then Scottish Tory leader, David McLetchie.

But Kirton-Darling, who was re-elected as Labour’s sole MEP in the north-east, said of Monteith: “This is somebody from a party campaigning to take freedom of movement of young people in the north-east … while at the same time actually benefiting from that free movement himself. It’s pure hypocrisy and I hope the people who have voted for him will recognise they have been sold a dud.”

Richard Elvin, Ukip’s lead candidate in the north-east, suggested voters may regret voting for a candidate who lives abroad. “When the people of the north-east wake up and find their chief representative is a Thatcherite Scottish Tory who lives in France they may regret it,” he said. “I believe you should live in the constituency you represent. If you live in France, wow. As I speak German, why don’t I ask one of the German parties if I can stand in Germany?”

Tennant, an independent councillor in Hartlepool who used to work for Nigel Farage in Brussels, was also elected for the Brexit party in the north-east.

In 2010 Tennant praised Godfrey Bloom, then a Ukip MEP, on the day he was ejected from the European parliament for directing a Nazi slogan at a German colleague, writing online: “Godfrey Bloom you are a legend! Say no more.” On another occasion, Tennant made a joke in which he referred to sex acts involving a young girl.

Labour was punished in the north-east after its elected representatives proved to be out of step with Leave voters.

Kirton-Darling used her acceptance speech to criticise Labour’s “weak” position on Brexit and push for a second referendum: “People don’t know what we stand for. I’ve had to convince Labour party members to vote for us … Our voters don’t want a Tory Brexit. If we don’t let the public back in to decide what happens next they will abandon us before we can deliver a government capable of bringing the transformative change that we need in this region and across the country.”

Turnout in the north-east was 32.7%, with only a quarter of voters in Hartlepool and Middlesbrough casting a ballot. Newcastle saw the most voters take to the polls: 38.8% of the electorate.

In 2014, the north-east elected two Labour MEPs and one from Ukip, Jonathan Arnott. He left the party in 2018 in protest over the party’s new leadership and finished his term as an Independent. He decided not to stand again, saying “as an MEP it has become abundantly clear that from the European parliament I will be unable to make any meaningful difference to the Brexit cause.”

The Brexit party attracted disaffected voters from Labour and the Conservatives. In Redcar and Cleveland, former Labour councillor Brian Dennis, who lost his job at Redcar’s steelworks when it closed in 2015, voted for Farage’s party.

Dennis, whose term ended earlier this month, decided not to seek re-election partly because he had become so disaffected with Labour’s national leadership. “I really think Jeremy Corbyn is not the person to be leading us,” he said. “He says in one breath that we will honour the referendum and the next he is talking customs unions and all of the rest of it. That to me isn’t leave at all.”

He also felt that the EU played a role in the demise of Redcar’s steel industry. “I absolutely blame Europe, I absolutely blame our government for hiding behind European state aid rules,” he said. Like many in Redcar, he remained angry that at the same time as Redcar’s steel plant closed, the Italian government provided Italian steel firm Ilva with state guarantee on loans. The European Commission later ruled they involved illegal state aid and had to recover millions of euros from Ilva.