Free from fear or favour
No tracking. No cookies

It is in Former Brexit Voters that the Flame of a Truly Impactful Rejoin Movement is Now Being Kindled

Many of the leave voters George Llewelyn met in 2021 were dissatisfied Eurosceptics who are now ardent rejoiners. How did it happen?

Ian Perkes. Photo: Byline TV

Newsletter offer

Subscribe to our newsletter for exclusive editorial emails from the Byline Times Team.

When I first met Ian Perkes in January 2021, the Brexit transition period had only recently come to an end and the UK formally left the European Union with a last-minute deal agreed mere weeks before.

Marking the occasion on 31 December, hundreds of Brexit supporters rallied in Parliament Square, spurred on by speeches from Brexit stalwarts Nigel Farage, Ann Widdecombe and Julia Hartley-Brewer. The mood was jubilant as a giant clock projected onto Downing Street’s famous black façade counted down the seconds. But 166 miles away in Brixham, the UK’s most high-value fish market, a different reality was about to set in.

Fish exporter Ian Perkes was about to face perhaps the most difficult three weeks of his career.

Between 31 December and 20 of January, when I interviewed him, Perkes had yet to send a single consignment out to Europe. Paperwork, customs checks and soaring costs had overnight precluded him from the market to which more than 70% of the fish brought into Brixham were usually sold. The impact of being effectively cut out of EU trade, he told me, was catastrophic.

“I think me and many others have made a mistake,” he said. “If I could turn back the clock, would I have voted leave? Of course not.”

It is a story that, over the following months, would resonate with every fisherman, farmer, manufacturer and exporter I spoke to. Travelling the UK to produce short films on Brexit for Byline TV between January and July, I heard the same thing over and over again.

“We’ve been sailed down the river” one farmer said, describing her dissatisfaction with the Withdrawal Agreement. In Swindon, factory workers who had been laid-off after Honda closed its plant there said “most Honda workers would not vote to leave again because they’d see it as damaging their future”.


‘I Was Taken Along on the Ride’: Fishing Merchant’s Regret at Voting Leave After Brexit Ruins his Business ‘Almost Overnight’

In an exclusive interview with Byline TV, Ian Perkes reveals why he would now vote differently in the EU Referendum if he could turn the clock back

Wherever we went, we heard the same thing: pub landlords, hauliers, water quality inspectors, taxi drivers, clothing manufacturers all asserted that Brexit had been ruinous.

It took the public and the press a couple of years to catch up. Since last May, polling has consistently shown that more people are in favour of rejoining the EU than staying out of it. The remain camp has for the most part become the rejoin camp – a natural progression for activists and campaigners who were passionate about staying in the EU who, since the referendum, have been focused on finding a way back in.

More interesting perhaps is the change in mood from the Brexit voters I spoke to in 2021. Many of them have graduated from Eurosceptics with a general dissatisfaction at how things turned out to becoming ardent rejoiners themselves.

When I visited Ian Perkes again last month, he was still facing the same issues which he assured me had not been resolved – but this time his outlook was different. “We’ve just taken stronger pills to deal with the headaches because the headaches haven’t changed,” he said. “The issues haven’t changed. In fact they’ve probably gotten worse.”

He again described himself as “brainwashed” by the leave campaign, a claim he made in 2021 – only this time he went further. “Absolutely nothing materialised out of the promises they made,” he said. When asked about Farage, he was resigned. “Where is he? He’s not been heard of since. I’ve not seen him in the press, I’ve not seen him on the TV. He just disappeared.”

Whereas two years ago Perkes seemed uneasy about criticising the former UKIP Leader, now the sense of betrayal and disappointment was palpable. When it comes to rejoining the EU, Perkes was unambiguous. “If we were given the opportunity to rejoin, I’d be the first to put my hand up to rejoin and get back in the EU – even if it involved being more of a part of Europe,” he said. “If there was another vote, I’d go on the road and petition for it.”

As in 2021, Perkes again seemed to constitute a sort of advance guard for sentiment among various industries. While campaigns to rejoin the EU have failed to build any true momentum and Labour Leader Keir Starmer has repeatedly declared the issue as settled, setting out plans to “make Brexit work”, beneath the surface it is the disappointed Brexit voters who are most unequivocal about rejoining.

Don’t miss a story

Travelling the country once again, they have told me the same thing: that no matter the cost, even if it meant deeper integration with the EU via ties like the Euro, they would still rejoin.

Perhaps the obvious progression from remain to rejoin makes former campaigners to stay in the EU less than ideal candidates to convince the public that such an option should be on the table. Even if they’ve been proved right many times over, our political culture has changed since Brexit and the mistrust of ‘the other side’ now runs so deep it is unlikely that the most ardent banner bearers for Brexit will ever get on board with what they see as merely a continuation of the remain campaign.

In 2023, seven years on from the referendum and three years from leaving the EU, it is in former Brexit voters – many of whom are feeling its effects most keenly – that perhaps the flame of a truly impactful rejoin movement is now being kindled. Taking the many, many such conversations I’ve been party to over recent months, I believe we are now on the cusp of a turning point where the campaign to rejoin the European Union will finally find its feet – and its emissaries.  

As Perkes said not one month ago, “if it would remove the red tape, if it takes away all these amazing massive, massive costs then that’s the price we’ll pay. We’re not getting our fish back, we’ve established that”. 

Byline TV’s feature-length documentary on Brexit, co-produced and edited by George Llewelyn, will be released soon

More from the Byline family

Byline TV’s reporting in Ukraine hears from people in the country about the conditions they face

Written by

This article was filed under
, ,