CHATHAM, England (Reuters) - There is a whiff of betrayal in the air across Britain’s Brexit heartlands where many impatient voters fear Prime Minister Theresa May is going soft on implementing last year’s decision to leave the European Union.
May’s gamble in calling a snap election on June 8, only to lose her parliamentary majority, has thrown the future of Brexit into doubt and the opening rounds of divorce talks have raised the prospect of a complex and expensive withdrawal which could take years to complete.
Throw in a visceral distrust of the London political classes, and for many voters it all points to one thing: a plot to water down, or even stop, Brexit.
“We voted to come out, so why didn’t they do it straight away? Why have we got to wait?” asked 64-year-old Chris Murdoch, in the small English town of Chatham, 50 km (30 miles) east of London. “We won’t come out completely because it’s not in their favor.”
Her husband Peter, a retired construction worker, added: “They’re all in it for themselves. They’re all two-faced ... We don’t trust any of them.”
Like 52 percent of Britons, both Chris and Peter Murdoch voted for Brexit last year and, like most, according to recent opinion polls, they haven’t changed their minds.
Such views in Chatham, a stronghold of May’s Conservatives in recent years, are shared widely in much of the country. That spells danger for May who must unite her party, divided for decades over Europe, to drive Brexit legislation through parliament and win approval for the final deal with Brussels.
It also means likely disappointment for those European politicians who hope Britons will have second thoughts about the wisdom of Brexit, and settle for a close relationship with the EU if the divorce has to go through.
Many Brexit voters in Chatham now fear that Britain’s leaders - who they say have ignored their interests for decades and are beholden to big money - are plotting to betray their dream of a clean break with the EU.
May called the early election to win a mandate for her vision of a ‘hard’ Brexit that prioritized immigration controls above the interests of the economy. Instead she emerged wounded, reliant on a small Northern Irish party to win major parliamentary votes and under pressure from her party’s pro-European wing and business to compromise with Brussels.
Some European leaders seem still not convinced by May’s mantra that “Brexit means Brexit”. French President Emmanuel Macron has said the EU’s door remains open and European Council President Donald Tusk even invoked the lyrics of John Lennon to ‘Imagine’ a Brexit rescinded.
At home, former Conservative prime minister John Major has said there is a credible case for giving Britons a second vote on the Brexit deal. His successor, Labour’s Tony Blair, has said repeatedly the process can and should be stopped.
There is little sympathy for this in Chatham, one of a cluster of towns on the banks of the River Medway that for centuries acted as part of England’s naval defense against the fleets of its European enemies.
Earlier this year the town marked an ignominious chapter in English history: the 350th anniversary of a daring raid by Dutch ships which caught the King’s defenses napping, sailing up the Medway to capture and burn prized assets of the fleet.
Nowadays Chatham’s dockyards are a museum, the barracks are being converted into flats and despite regeneration efforts, a higher-than-average 12.2 percent of the local working-age population receive government social payments.
The Medway towns, including Chatham, backed Brexit by almost two to one. Like so many of the towns outside England’s major cities that overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU, it has long struggled to adapt to a decline in traditional industries.
“My fear is that they won’t follow it through and they’ll find a reason to stay in,” said former postal worker Trevor James, a 61-year-old Brexit-supporting voter from Chatham.
James noted that a majority of Conservative and opposition Labour lawmakers had backed staying in the EU before the referendum, along with most members of the upper House of Lords. “It’s all in the lap of the gods as to whether they follow it through properly,” he said.
Above all, Brexit supporters want to control arrivals of workers, especially from poorer, eastern EU states, on which many employers have come to depend. They accuse migrants of taking jobs, undermining wages and overloading public services - even though foreign-born workers play a major role in running hospitals, doctors’ surgeries and other vital services.
May’s government is now struggling to design, negotiate and implement a chaos-free exit plan by March 2019. With business demanding a staggered departure, top ministers have accepted a transitional period is needed to minimize legal and investment uncertainty that could damage the economy.
Finance minister Philip Hammond has suggested there could be little immediate change to immigration rules, saying the transition might last until 2022. Such arguments carry little sway outside London.
Relatively few Britons have changed their minds in the 14 months since the referendum. A YouGov poll this month showed 45 percent believed that in hindsight it had been right for Britain to vote to leave, and the same amount that it had been wrong. No less than 61 percent of ‘Leave’ voters thought significant damage to the economy was a price worth paying to quit the EU.
David Barker, a 55-year-old manager at a telecoms firm from the Medway town of Rochester, believed people like Hammond were wobbling. “It’s not going to be the hard Brexit we voted for with immigration (control) and coming out totally.”
Several local voters said any transitional deal allowing continued unrestricted EU immigration was unacceptable.
Medway politicians are determined to hold May to account on Brexit via their local members of parliament. “I don’t accept that the general election shows the will of the people has changed,” said Alan Jarrett, the Brexit-supporting leader of the Conservative-run local authority.
“We speak regularly to our three local MPs to make sure they don’t lose sight of what Medway people voted for,” he said, adding that a transition of three to five years was “excessive”.
The Medway towns sit in the southeastern county of Kent, home to the Channel Tunnel rail link with France and Dover ferry terminal. At its closest point, the coast of continental Europe is just 33 km away.
Residents say Kent lies in the front line of the immigration debate, making little distinction between EU migrants and people from outside the bloc seeking asylum.
Despite a lower proportion of residents born outside Britain than the national average - at 10 percent of the Medway population compared with 14.5 percent across England - voters say immigration is the main issue that May must address.
“I’m not against immigrants but it’s just overflowing the country,” said Bryan Burrows, 85, who says that after paying taxes for more than half a century, he resents migrants having easy access to the publicly-funded healthcare service.
May insists the free movement of EU workers to Britain will end in 2019 and a British-controlled border policy will come into effect. But so far she has offered little detail of the new regime and businesses are lobbying hard for as few restrictions as possible to ensure they can find the workers they need.
For many residents the bottom line is simple: anything other than a radical tightening of Britain’s borders would be a betrayal.
“This used to be a lovely town, Chatham. Now all you hear is foreigners,” said Peter Murdoch. “They’re coming over getting all the benefits, houses, the lot. Struggle, that’s all we do. It’s not fair.”
“That’s what’s turned us: immigrants and what they get when they come over here,” he said. “Of course it should stop. Blow the tunnel up as well.”
Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and David Stamp