In Buxton, which split nearly 50/50 in June 2016, there are signs of a shift in the public mood.
The clouds have briefly cleared in the Peak District and, from behind the counter at Appleyard’s tobacconist, Martin Olsson is greeting regular customers who are taking advantage of the good weather.
He is helping run his wife’s family business in Buxton, where they moved in 2002. But the year he is reminiscing about now is 1994, when Sweden held its own in-out referendum on the EU. He voted no, but yes won by a sliver – so Sweden went in.
“The country was divided and I was deeply disappointed. But a year later I began benefiting from membership of the EU, when I went to live and study in Ireland,” says Olsson, 47.
He is holding out for a second Brexit referendum. “Over these past two years, a lot of people have realised that they have made the wrong choice, like I did. If Brexit goes ahead, ordinary people who are just about managing will be starving.”
Just up the road Martin Lang, 61, works as a salesman at Conways DIY. He is of a different opinion. “I voted to leave in 2016 and would do the same today,” he says, “because of the amount of regulation we have to endure as a small business.” He is calling on MPs to back the prime minister’s deal. “Considering the opposition she has had from her own party, I think she has done remarkably well. I’m not a natural Tory voter, but I admire Theresa May.”
This dichotomy is nothing new in Buxton. High Peak, the parliamentary constituency in which it lies, voted for Brexit by a 0.5% margin. Now there are some signs that the mood is shifting the other way. The local MP, Ruth George, is part of a group of Labour politicians who have been running surveys on their constituents’ views on Brexit. Her latest survey of 1,600 people, which has been up since 13 November and is ongoing, has shown a 17% shift from former Leave voters to Remain and 4% from Remain voters to Leave. In her first survey, which ran between January and May, the Leave-to-Remain swing was just 1%.
“In the spring there was very little shift in opinion,” George says. “Now we can see what the ‘best deal we can get from Europe’ looks like, there is definitely a change.” She will vote against May’s deal on Tuesday, and supports Labour’s policy of keeping all options on the table. In the latest survey, 59% of respondents have backed a fresh vote.
Back on Buxton high street, Julie, 58, who works in retail and didn’t want to give her last name, says she voted to leave in 2016 because of the bureaucracy imposed by EU rules. “But if I had to vote again now, I would vote Remain, because it’s all been such a mess,” she says.
Nicola Wallace, 24, who works at the University of Derby and has backed Remain from the start, agrees: “This whole process has been a disaster – and while the Brexiteers claim they can get a better deal, none of them are actually putting anything forward.”
Other Labour MPs who have sought their constituents’ views include James Frith, Melanie Onn and Sharon Hodgson. All recorded recent net swings in their constituencies from Leave to Remain, as the reality of what the Brexit deal will look like has begun to set in.
Frith has represented Bury North – regarded as a bellwether seat – since 2017. Last month his survey of 760 people revealed an 8.5% swing from Leave to Remain, compared with 4% the other way. More than half of those he surveyed backed a fresh vote on the deal. Frith says that his findings demonstrate how “the people of Bury do not want to give the PM a blank cheque on this deal”.
In Washington and Sunderland West, which voted heavily to leave, Hodgson’s survey of 623 people suggests a 24% swing from Leave to Remain and 18% the other way. “There continues to be a strong variety of opinion in my constituency,” Hodgson says. “It is clear, however, that very few people are happy with the way in which the government has handled the negotiations.” In Great Grimsby, Onn’s survey of 856 people found a 13% swing from Leave to Remain, while the change from Remain to Leave has been around half that size.