‘Totnes? It’s hippie central.’ A friend warned me what to expect when I visited the affluent, left-leaning town in south-east Devon to assess public opinion about the local MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston. In March she left the Tories to join Change UK and she now sits as a Liberal Democrat. I equipped myself with a photo of her and wandered the streets last Monday. A chap in the Wild Fig Deli told me that her disloyalty would terminate her career. ‘You can change party, all right, but you hold a by-election. She’s lost her credibility.’ In 2011 Wollaston backed a private members’ bill requiring MPs who change parties to stand for re-election. She has yet to meet this obligation herself.
A woman soaking up the sun outside a jewellery shop recognised my Wollaston photo. ‘But I’m Labour,’ she said, ‘I voted Remain.’ ‘Do you think we’ll leave by 31 October?’ ‘Yes,’ she said firmly, ‘I wanted to stay but we’ll be out.’ I asked if Remain might snatch victory at the last minute. ‘No chance.’ A nurse in uniform bustling between two shops looked at my photo in puzzlement. ‘She’s the local MP and a doctor,’ I prompted.
‘Never heard of her.’
A man of about 40 in an upmarket knick-knack shop told me: ‘She’s well liked and well respected here.’ I asked if Brexit was likely to happen on 31 October. He squinted at me silently for several seconds as if I were mocking him. ‘We will leave,’ he said heavily. ‘We’ve just got to get on with it because it’s horrendous for the economy being stuck in limbo.’
Two Brummie women with deep tans and costly hairdos squinted in bemusement at my Wollaston picture. ‘Recognise her?’ ‘No.’ ‘Do you live here? ‘No.’ ‘Are you interested in politics?’ ‘No.’
Do you even care about Brexit?’
‘I’m caring less,’ said one, ‘I just want to get on with it even though I voted Stay.’ She pointed out that a prosperous market town in Devon was very different from the Midlands. ‘There’s a lot of immigration where we’re from, because that’s where the work is. We’re not racist, but we can’t look after the whole world.’
Her friend told me she worked with ‘a lot of Spanish and Italians and they’re leaving the country because of Brexit’.
Are they not aware that their rights will be protected?
‘Yes but they see Britain as racist. Don’t quote us, by the way.’
Over lunch I chatted to a friendly waitress who knew Wollaston by sight. I asked if she rated Wollaston’s chances of being re-elected. ‘Maybe, if she can find any Lib Dems around here,’ she said sceptically, as if Lib Dems are as rare as zebras in Devon. ‘This is a very Conservative constituency.’ She echoed the complaints of many locals who felt that Wollaston was an absentee MP. ‘The last one, Anthony Steen, was a Tory but at least we seen him.’
The Conservative Club was holding a car-boot sale, where I met a Leaver who shrugged sourly when I mentioned Wollaston. But he refused to say anything against her. He was very perky about Brexit, however. ‘Boris is doomed if he doesn’t get us out. Which is a good thing. It’s like playing poker against someone who’s all-in. You know he means it.’
Another clued-up Tory told me the referendum should never have been held without supplementary conditions. ‘We needed a threshold of 60 per cent for victory. But David Cameron said a majority of one will take us out of the EU. And he’s supposed to be an intelligent man. We’ll get through it, though, it’s nothing like world war two. The Germans may not like us but they’re not actually trying to kill us.’
At Birdwood House I met a self-proclaimed ‘socialist painter’ in his mid-sixties who was selling acrylics of industrialised Britain. He said the Brexit process had left him ‘despairing of all politicians. It’s a disgrace. I don’t trust Corbyn that much either.’ The Conservatives, he told me, were guilty of long-term failures. ‘Selling off council houses should never have been allowed. The rent was fixed. The tenants were happy.’ He knew who to blame for the referendum and the result. ‘David Cameron’s got a lot to answer for.’
As a footnote, I noticed many Remainers used the word ‘Stay’ to describe their vote in the referendum. An interesting distinction. ‘Stay’ suggests comfort, safety and homely reassurance. Perhaps Remain lost because they chose the wrong word.