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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 15 December 2018

Brexit angst spoils the mood in Boris Johnson's backyard

As the battle for Britain rages, voters in Brexit leader's constituency rage over the lack of progress

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson speaks to media during a visit to a Battle of Britain bunker in Uxbridge. Getty Images
British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson speaks to media during a visit to a Battle of Britain bunker in Uxbridge. Getty Images

The last time that the nondescript commuter town of Uxbridge was at the centre of a battle for Europe, Britain was at war and prime minister Winston Churchill was in town to inspect the nation’s air defences.

Nearly eight decades on and if things had gone to plan, Churchill’s biographer and successor as defender of the nation, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson, would like to possess the great leader’s mantle. But Brexit has so far intervened.

Mr Johnson had a date to plant a tree at the once secret Uxbridge bunker where the top brass ran the Battle of Britain on Thursday just as Prime Minister Theresa May was due to address parliament on the deal struck with Brussels to leave the European Union.

Whatever his local obligations, Mr Johnson, as a leading critic is focused squarely on efforts to scupper the deal from Mrs May's backbenches.

The Battle of Britain Bunker is situated in the heart of Mr Johnson’s parliamentary constituency, Uxbridge and South Ruislip, part of one of only five areas in London to vote to leave the European Union during the nationwide referendum of 2016.

If anywhere in Uxbridge had full-throated support for Brexit and confidence of its solo future on the world stage, it would be at the bunker – a visitor attraction frozen in time in the 1940s when British imperial powers were yet to wane.

On a guided tour this week, most of the visitors were at least in their 50s, a key demographic of Leave voters. While most of those spoken to by the National were backers of Brexit, many were also unsure about its outcome and frustrated by the slow passage of negotiations.

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“I think she [Theresa May] has done really well to get a deal that satisfies absolutely nobody,” said Lorraine Shepherd, 56. “It took us two years to end up with this complete jumble.”

On both sides of the Brexit debate, advocates have described the decision to quit the EU as the greatest existential threat to Britain since the Second World War.

The lessons of the Second World Wars led directly to the formation of the EU and a desire to end the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours on the continent, said bunker tour guide Phil Baker.

In fact, Mr Baker voted to remain within the bloc at the referendum and is no fan of Mr Johnson, the most vocal and best-known of the Brexiteers who quit Theresa May’s cabinet because of her plans for leaving the EU.

“We can’t just abandon Europe - but it looks like we’re going to,” said Mr Baker.

Visitor Brian Page, 66, who lives in Uxbridge, voted to leave the EU but said that Mrs May had been left with a tough job to run the UK’s Brexit negotiations. Mr Page still supports Mr Johnson and said his vision for the UK was missed during the final months of negotiations.

“He should have remained in the cabinet,” he said. “I was disappointed when he quit.”

Supporters of Mr Johnson have often compared him to Churchill because of his oratory and his broad base of popularity. His detractors would suggest the similarities ended there.

But during his leadership of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, Mr Johnson frequently evoked the wartime spirit and claimed that Churchill would have backed Brexit.

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“It’s pretty clear to me that his vision for Britain was not subsumed within a European superstate,” he declared on the Brexit battle bus before the referendum. He claimed the country needed to learn lessons from Sir Winston who showed a “willingness to be brave”.

Back in the town centre, the traders setting up for the Christmas market were less concerned of Uxbridge’s historical wartime record than how they were going to pay for their supplies.

Graham George, 39, from Peterborough, eastern England, who ran a French food stall, has already seen the impact of Brexit, with the volatility of the pound already costing him more to import his supplies from the continent.

“I haven’t put prices up for five to six years and I’ve taken a hit on that,” he said. “I’ve done this full-time for eight to ten years. Next year, unless something drastic changes, it’s going to be a seasonal job and will focus on the months when I make better profits – there’s not enough money in it.”

He is part of a market that travels across Britain, but has seen French colleagues drop away in the face of falling profits, preferring to stay in France to trade.

He had an inkling of the likely result of the referendum after seeing hostility towards his continental colleagues in market towns up and down the country after a campaign fought largely on the issue of immigration.

Running another stall, florist Josh Sirey, 28, said that he bought most of his flowers from Dutch growers. They were better quality than from UK suppliers and were still cheaper by taking advantage of the tariff-free borders between EU member states. He doesn’t want to increase prices but is turning to homegrown products to keep his business going.

“We’re more consumers than producers,” said Mr Sirey. “We’ve closed everything down, the steel works, we don’t produce anything any more.”

His florist colleague Georgina Dafe, 35, has the local MP in her sights. “I think Boris is a joke, but a very clever joke,” she said. “People think he is this funny clown, harmless and fluffy. But he didn’t get to where he did by being a silly person. It’s a façade of foolishness.”