“It’s a great early Christmas gift,” said one shopper on the high street of Ashby-de-la-Zouch on hearing news of a Brexit trade deal.
The market town, described by its local MP as “the heart of Middle England”, voted overwhelmingly to leave the EU and it was one of the last stop-offs for Boris Johnson on the final day of Vote Leave campaigning on 22 June 2016.
Back then, I had spent an hour on the high street after interviewing Mr Johnson, and was unable to find a single person who was going to vote to remain in the EU. It was, for me, the first time I got a real sense of the direction in which the country was heading.
Indeed, the town in North Leicestershire, voted overwhelmingly to leave the European bloc.
So, I was almost knocked back when the first couple I spoke to today about the new Brexit deal told me they’d voted to remain.
Jeff and Rosemary Henson were not especially impressed that Boris Johnson had got a deal.
“I think the trouble was, he [Boris] got in on ‘I’ll get Brexit done’ and I suppose he’s got Brexit done!” said Rosemary.
Jeff finished: “The thing is people still don’t really know what Brexit is.”
Rosemary went on to rightly predict that the new deal meant an end to Britain’s participation in the Erasmus programme, which allows students in different European countries to exchange places.
“We have grandchildren that won’t be able to do their Erasmus and all that sort of thing,” said Rosemary. “Our girls went to university and were able to do all of that. I think we’re losing quite a lot. We don’t really know what was lost. I think they were lied to right from the start. “
But others on the high street were more in line with what I’d expected. “I’m glad to hear it,” said one gentleman.
Did you vote for Brexit? “I did yes”.
Is this what you were hoping for?
“No, we were hoping for this to happen a long time ago!”
The most commonly held view was that this deal meant the UK had regained sovereignty and the ability to make its own laws. The old mantra of “take back control” was repeated back to me. The slogan that was so successful, because it was a distillation of what people said to Vote Leave Strategist Dominic Cummings in focus groups on the EU, that the UK had lost control of its laws, money and borders.
But one man on the high street said: “The conversation has changed from net migration to more about holidays and trade. People started to worry about lorries queueing at Dover, whether food was going to run out and whether they’ll be able to go on holiday in Europe.”
There had been a growing tension about what no-deal would mean for the UK, and there was an overriding sense of relief that that bullet had been avoided at a time when the country was already in financial trouble from the pandemic.
People now wanted to look forwards and perhaps more inwards. “Buy British, create more British jobs,” said one shopper.
But the local MP, who was at Boris Johnson’s side on the day he campaigned in the town, said this was an opportunity to look outwards.
Andrew Bridgen campaigned for a hard Brexit and would have been satisfied with no deal, but he greeted news of a trade agreement with cautious optimism. Mr Bridgen said now was the time to create a new trading block with Canada, New Zealand and Australia.
He told Sky News: “I’m hoping that in the next 12 months we are going to have a comprehensive, free trade, free movement, the ability to live, work and start a business in either Canada, New Zealand, or the UK.
“We’re all parliamentary democracies based on the same democratic system, we’re all relatively wealthy countries. And the difference is with Canada, Australia and New Zealand – we won’t be making each other’s laws.”
Mr Bridgen believes such an arrangement would lead to a migration flow away from the UK, as people take advantage of the greater landmass in those less populated countries.
The Brexit campaign has waited decades for this moment, but it was only nine years ago that anyone properly raised the question of what our relationship would look like after we left.
In a debate in parliament in October 2011, William Hague asked: “If we voted to leave the European Union, would that mean that, like Norway, we were in the European Free Trade Association and in the European Economic Area but still paying towards the budget, or, like Switzerland, not in the European Economic area… Would we be in the single market, or not, still subject to its rules or not?”
In the years that followed, this question was often forgotten but we now, finally, have the answer – neither Norway nor Switzerland, but more like Canada.
We have left the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, but there will be a new independent arbitration body and where UK and EU laws diverge, tariffs could follow.
We may have relief at a deal, but this still is a harder Brexit than many first imagined.
While it is now hoped the UK will unite behind it – there is a threat to the Union in Scotland, as nationalists will seek to find levers in the deal for their own ends.
Much of this sentiment was reflected in the mood on the high street in Ashby-de-la-Zouch. Even though we are closer to the end result, there is less certainly and consistency about what it all meant.
Back in 2016, Brexit was a simple set of slogans – four-and-a-half years later, we are just beginning to see what it looks like.