Why have Boris Johnson's constituents changed their minds on Brexit?

Tom Peck

In February 2016, the MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip infamously typed out two newspaper columns, one declaring support for remaining in the European Union, one for leaving. A truth that MP is keen to perpetuate and the public vaguely content to indulge is that the moment the Leave column and not the Remain one was copied, pasted and emailed in to his editors at the Daily Telegraph comment desk was the moment that changed history.

Whether the great question Boris Johnson toyed with from above his laptop screen that day concerned the nation’s best interests or his own is a matter of some disagreement. But at the premature end of a stint as the worst foreign secretary in the country’s history, it would nevertheless still appear that Brexit has turned out to be in Mr Johnson’s interests. He remains favourite to succeed Theresa May as prime minister, after all.

But curiously, his constituents, having allied their interests with his own on the 23 June 2016 appear to have had a change of heart. Uxbridge and South Ruislip is one of 112 constituencies that, according to new research, has changed its mind on Brexit. Having backed Leave on 23 June 2016 by a narrow margin, it has now swung back in favour of Remain, albeit not by much. According to focaldata, Mr Johnson’s constituency was once 57.9 per cent in favour of leaving the European Union. Now is it 51.3 per cent in favour of remaining.

So should Mr Johnson, who has now returned to his column writing ways, with no shortage of controversy, be worried?

Now that he no longer walks the corridors of power, he has already found more time to walk the affluent, if a little identikit streets of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, his suburban, nominally west London but spiritually Buckinghamshire constituency.

That not two weeks ago he was cutting the ribbon at the newly refurbished McDonalds in the shopping centre near the station comes as news to Ian Talbot, a construction worker exiting with an early takeaway dinner. But if the will of the people round here has changed, the will of Ian Talbot remains steadfast.

“Who’s changed their mind?” he says. “I’ve not changed my mind. Better off out. If it was going to be a disaster it’d have been one by now. It should all be done by now. Out. Over and done with.”

The data, first published in The Observer, is based on a survey of 15,000 people from around the country, and then stretched to fit over the country’s most narrowly leave voting constituencies, where only a slight swing is required to march over the middle of the Brexit seesaw and come down on the side of Remain.

It is not to say that the streets of Uxbridge and South Ruislip are suddenly teeming with people who regret their choice in the referendum, and would give anything for a chance to atone for their error.

They are not. The sentiments expressed by Barbara Denham, 42, who is also surprised to learn that Boris Johnson recently opened the McDonald’s she is about to enter (“what, here? A McDonalds?”) are not uncommon.

“They’ve made such a meal of it,” she says. “If they don’t get it done now they’ll never do it. Why’s it taking so long?”

The technicalities of the two year long Article 50 process are not something that has occupied a great deal of her time in the years since the vote, but she is in no doubt about who is to blame for the delay. “Why should we be mucked about any longer? We should leave now,” she says. That quite a bit, if not all of the mucking about has been done on the UK side, not least in the form of a general election that rendered the prime minister’s already almost unimaginably difficult job even more difficult, is by the by.

But does she feel, perhaps, that after two years of bitter public arguing, that she knows a bit more about Brexit and the issues involved then she did then?

“Do you know what? Maybe you’re right. Maybe I do. But if anything, it’s made me want to leave even more. They’re saying planes’ll be grounded, food shortages. Well that just shows how powerful they’ve become. It’s not right.”

That leaving will be a disaster and so that’s precisely why we should do it is an argument that’s new on me, but there is a logic there, and it’s not the only novel point raised by the people of Uxbridge.

The second stop on Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge tour of 3 August was the Rural Activities Garden Centre, just out of town. The heatwave has subsided since then and the biblical deluges have rendered it a bit of a ghost town. But in the car park is a man called Barry, in his sixties, who describes himself as a “recently retired businessman” and whose journey in the two and a bit years since he voted Leave is intriguing.

He is by no means what has come to be known as a “Regrexiteer” but his position can only be explained through quoting at considerable length.

“I voted Brexit and honestly, the rows we’ve had in the office you wouldn’t believe,” he says.

“In ’75 I voted in, okay. But what I voted in to was a common market. And then over the last 20, 30, 40 years, which is most of my life, that thing that we voted in to has changed, and we were never given a say on any of it. Now there’s this policy and that policy and there’s immigration. Millions of people come and start their lives here, start big communities here and, if we want to do anything about it, which I’m not saying we do, well there isn’t anything we can do about it if we did.

“There’s the euro, that’s been a disaster, and who says we won’t join that in the end as well. And so I decided, actually, we’re better off out of it, and so I voted Leave.

“But if you say any of that to the young ones in my office, they say ‘Oh my god, we can’t leave. We can’t leave. It’ll be a disaster.’ And they want to be in the EU, they really do. And they say well it’s alright for you, you’re about to retire. I’ve had a good job, and now I’ve got a good pension. And they say, ‘It’s us that will have to sort this mess out.’

“And I do think, maybe, not definitely, not definitely, but maybe they’re right. It was all my generation that voted Leave wasn’t it, and it’s not my generation that it will affect. And if all these young people really don’t want it, then maybe it is a bit unfair.

“Now, if you made me vote again, I’m not saying I’d change my mind. I’m not saying for certain I would. I really don’t know. But I might. I might.”

Whether this new demographic, the “benevolent Brexiteer” vote, the ones just thinking of the children, could account for such a significant swing away from Leave to Remain, here in Boris Johnson’s constituency and around the country seems unlikely. But those publicly prepared to admit they might have changed their minds are a rare breed. To the best of my knowledge, Danny Dyer and Barry in the garden centre car park might be the only two.

But the polling indicates there are millions more like them.