March 27, 2019 / 10:15 PM / 3 months ago

Angst and apathy outside parliament as UK lawmakers debate Brexit options

By Andrew MacAskill and Andrew R.C. Marshall

An anti-Brexit protester waves flags outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, March 27, 2019. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

LONDON (Reuters) - Robert Unbranded stands out from other protesters outside the British parliament, and not just because of his red jumpsuit, wild hair and unusual surname.

In a public space otherwise dominated by vocal supporters and opponents of Brexit, Unbranded carries signs protesting the impact of plastic bags on the environment.

“Many people tell me that my protest is more important,” he says, then nods toward parliament. “But everyone is focused on the guff in there.”

That focus was intense on Wednesday as Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to quit in return for parliament passing her EU divorce deal at the third attempt, and lawmakers discussed last-ditch options to break the Brexit deadlock.

Outside, veteran pro- and anti-EU protesters with flags and placards took up well-worn positions on nearby pavements and squares, their rivalry and modest numbers reflecting how Brexit has both divided and exhausted the nation.

Only 7 percent of Brits recently surveyed by NatCen Social Research said the government had handled Britain’s exit from the EU well, with those who voted Leave and Remain almost equally dismayed.

An earlier poll by Ipsos Mori ranked politicians as Britain’s least trusted profession after advertising executives.

Protesters at parliament were also united by a low confidence in British lawmakers’ chances of finding a way out of the Brexit mess.

“If they’re just going to quibble among themselves, we’re not going to get anywhere,” said George Cowie, a retired soldier standing with other anti-EU protesters near the MPs’ entrance to parliament.

He called May’s deal with the EU “appalling” and wanted her replaced by someone who could come up with a better one.

Rival protester Ruth Fryer, a retired teacher wearing a “We Still Love EU” badge, was also despairing.

“My biggest hope is that MPs do what they’re paid to do, which is to put the national interest first and stop Brexit,” she said.

Now scaffold-clad and undergoing renovations, the parliamentary building is for some people a metaphor for a feeble legislature that is unable to fix the country’s Brexit woes and feels remote from normal life.

The debate on Wednesday initially seemed to confirm this, with one lawmaker mocking another over the posh private schools they both attended.

Others articulated what was at stake just two days before Britain was originally due to leave the European Union.

“The government still do not have a plan B. It is incredible, to say the least,” said Jim Cunningham of the opposition Labour Party.

SUBDUED PROTESTERS

Some politicians complained that the atmosphere outside parliament had become ugly and intimidating. But on Wednesday at least, protesters were subdued and few.

Most Brexit supporters clustered by the MPs’ entrance to shout or wave signs at passing politicians.

Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister and leading Brexiteer, arrived by bicycle, dismounting to negotiate a scrum of photographers. May swept through soon after in an armored Jaguar led by police outriders.

Most EU supporters gathered at the other end of the Palace of Westminster, where the national and global media have set up makeshift studios. One supporter introduced himself as “David Palk, the flag man.”

Palk, a semi-retired gardener, held a retractable flag pole as high as a house that allowed his EU flag to appear in the backdrop of television broadcasts.

“This mess has made abundantly clear that our current parliament is not fit for purpose,” he said.

He began to elaborate but was drowned out by the operatic aria Nessun Dorma, played at full volume by a fellow Remainer circling the area in a silver Rolls Royce.

Maureen, a company secretary, said she was protesting to persuade lawmakers to deliver Brexit, but had given up trying to change the opinions of ordinary people.

“The debate is more rancorous now than it was in the run-up to the (2016) referendum,” she said, declining to give her surname. “People’s views are so entrenched.”

She described Britain as a stable country, then corrected herself. “Take that back. We were a stable country. This is making us a laughing stock.”

Reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Andrew R.C. Marshall; additional reporting by Rachel Cordery; editing by Stephen Addison

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