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‘People don’t know what they voted for’: People’s Vote rally in Yorkshire sees celebrities, sports legends and politicians call for second referendum

Former England midfield general Peter Reid, in particular, is not mincing his words...

Colin Drury
Sunday 23 June 2019 10:03 BST
Countdown to Brexit: How many days left until Britain leaves the EU?

Peter Reid was never a footballer to shirk a tackle – or to mince his words.

“I wouldn’t call it the hand of God,” he once said of Diego Maradona’s infamous goal, scored while Reidy himself was on the pitch. “I’d call it the hand of a cheating bastard.”

He has, it seems, lost none of his tenacity or righteousness down the years. Only, on Saturday, it was aimed squarely at Brexiteers.

As one of the headline speakers at a mass People’s Vote rally in Leeds – the first of 15 such events being staged across the UK this summer – the former England midfield general repeatedly put metaphorical two-footers into the idea of leaving the EU without a second referendum.

“Sham-bollocks,” he said when asked, while on stage, to sum up the last three years in a single word.

“Believe it or not,” he added at one point, “I go in public houses and, after a few, we get into heated debates [about Brexit] and, I don’t mean this in an ignorant way, people don’t know what they voted for.”

Jeremy Corbyn, this lifelong Labour supporter added, must throw his support behind a new people’s vote. “Get off the fence,” he demanded to huge applause.

Such strong words and rallying calls came thick and fast – and from a whole raft of speakers – during the two-hour event attended by an estimated 1,000 people at the west Yorkshire city’s New Dock Hall.

Celebrities and politicians – including Steve Cram, Alastair Campbell, Hilary Benn and (but of course) Anna Soubry – came together to ask to be asked again.

“Our great, wonderful country has made a terrible mistake,” the latter said. “The best deal is the current deal.”

This may not have been comparable with the movement’s great London marches over the last year but it was, organisers said, a show of northern strength.

And, more to the point perhaps, it was also almost certainly the only place you could ever have witnessed John Barnes calling Boris Johnson – apparent prime minister in waiting – a “buffoon”, before having Denise Welch ponder on Liam Fox’s record as international trade secretary. “Where are all these trade deals?” the erstwhile Corrie star asked, not unreasonably.

In one surreal moment, a young Conservative Party member was cheered by Labour and Lib Dem supporters after quoting William Hague. It’s alright for many Leave voters, he said, “you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time”.

In another, a trio of voters who had supported leaving the EU in 2016, and since changed their mind, took to the stage. “I feel like I’ve been conned by a bunch of dodgy used car salespeople,” one, Leon French, a 24-year-old from Doncaster, told the crowd. “However, I should apologise to dodgy used car salespeople. They don’t deserve to be compared to Michael Gove or Jacob Rees-Mogg.”

Big laugh. Big cheer. Big waving of EU flags.

And a big feeling that this planned summer of rallies – including upcoming events in Sunderland, Glasgow, Wolverhampton and Manchester – could really build nationwide momentum for a new vote.

Hilary Benn calls on his party to come out ‘loud and clear’ in support of a second referendum (PA)

Hillary Benn, Labour MP for Leeds Central, is perhaps somehow symbolic of that feeling.

This is the first time the former international development secretary has attended such a rally after recently coming out in favour of a second referendum and demanding that his party officially does the same.

“We know, to use the technical term, that Brexit is a complete and utter mess,” he said. “I have never spoken on a People’s Vote platform before, but I too have come to the conclusion that the only way out of this mess is now to give the people a final say…

“What was promised in 2016 by the Leave campaign does not exist. You cannot have all of our sovereignty and all of the economic benefits. It wasn’t true. It isn’t true. Brexit will make us poorer, Brexit will make the north poorer.”

His words matter here because he knows more than most on this. It was his House of Commons Brexit Committee – a cross-party group he heads – which found that a no-deal Brexit would leave this region 7 per cent poorer.

Indeed, this was an argument given by many in the crowd for supporting a final say vote.

They were here, they said, because leaving the EU would damage the economy, destroy jobs, harm the NHS, risk food shortages and reduce the UK’s ability to deal with global threats such as terrorism, climate change and cyberattacks.

Parliament, many added, had several votes on the issue, so the people should at least have two.

And, plenty more reckoned, it was time for the Labour Party to throw its full weight behind a second referendum.

“I will never ever vote Labour again if they don’t get off the fence and become the party of Remain,” attendee Ian Hinde said. “The irony is I like Jeremy Corbyn and a lot of his policies, but the way he has dealt with Europe, his refusal to go one way or the other, means I’ve lost all respect for him.”

Why had he, himself, come on a sunny day to listen to speeches, I asked?

“Because I believe this is right,” the 65-year-old retired retail manager replied. “If I might make a difference by sitting in a room, I feel it’s right to try.”

Pauline Allon, serving on the single Leeds For Europe stall, felt something similar. She was doing a roaring trade in blue “Yorkshire for Europe” mugs and bright yellow “Brexit is Bonkers” stickers. Hang on... bonkers?

“This is the polite version of the bollocks stickers,” the 65-year-old retired nurse, from Ilkley, said. “Although, for what it’s worth, yes, I think Brexit is bollocks.”

Back on stage, Alistair Campbell was keeping it cleaner but saying much the same thing.

In particular he wanted to draw attention to the fact, he perceived, that a London-centric press had a tendency to represent the north as one homogeneous “mass of angry and decrepit Brexiteers”.

This event, he said, proved different.

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Yet sceptics – and northern sceptics at that – might wonder if it proved much of anything at all.

Yorkshire voted 57.7 per cent in favour of leaving the EU. Leeds and York excepted, its biggest cities and towns, including Hull and Sheffield, almost all wanted out. Could 1,000 people in a darkened room – essentially less people than were at a Conservative leadership hustings in Birmingham around the same time – really claim to be proof that there had been a shift in opinion?

“It’s not the biggest crowd today,” admitted one audience member Elysia O’Neill. “But I think this will really pick up over the summer. I think people – especially young people – are starting to realise there may be a chance to change this, and they will hopefully come out to support it.”

But, the 22-year-old from Wakefield added, the events needed to be more ambitious. “They need to be engaging, and they need to be about winning the argument – not just talking to people who already share our beliefs.”

Backstage Peter Reid was thinking something similar. “This summer is so important for this country,” he told me. “We have to do everything we can to make a people’s vote happen or the consequences will end up hurting so many people.”

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