They arrived on an otherwise peaceful Sunday. On 12 June, they parked their metaphorical tanks on David Cameron’s constituency lawn: they erected their Grassroots Out Brexit stall right here on Church Green, in the heart of our pro-Remain Prime Minister’s Witney constituency.
They occupied one of his favourite pubs, the Fleece – because he had unwisely recommended it to them in an attempt at mocking Prime Minister’s Question Time bravado. They took photographs of themselves at the bar, grinning in their lurid green Grassroots Out ties.
But I think those 60 Brexiteering troublemakers have gone now. Church Green seems once more at peace. The spire of St Mary’s Church stands sentinel over the green, as it has done for more than seven centuries. Mums in wellies emerge from Chelsea tractors to drop kids off at school. And joy of small-c conservative joys, a venerable lady in a venerable bike really does pedal towards the church, for all the world, as if auditioning for the part of one of pro-Remain John Major’s “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”.
But then you notice the giant red “Vote Leave” banner slapped across the Cotswold stone of one cottage, and you spot them: the plotters David Barnby and his daughter Erika. She helped organise that Grassroots Out stall and is Leave.eu co-ordinator for West Oxfordshire. Dad is Vote Leave’s man for West Oxfordshire, which does mean, alas, that in Witney there is none of that Judean People’s Front/People’s Front of Judea factional squabbling that has so enriched the national Brexit campaign.
This most unrepentant pair of plotters are back on the green, leafleting the houses around it.
And to think Mr Barnby, 78, had that Mr Cameron and his wife for cream tea at his house once. But that was when Mr Cameron was seeking to become the parliamentary candidate for Witney and Mr Barnby was a stalwart of the local Conservative Association.
Now the retired telecoms engineer comes armed with a copy of his self-published book, The EU: A Corporatist Racket, and his printouts of “the banana emails”.
Back in 2000, at about the same time that he was calling in on the Barnbys for tea, you see, Mr Cameron was assuring Conservatives he would be a good Eurosceptic candidate. “No to further transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels,” the young hopeful had written of his views. “If that’s being a Europhile, then I’m a banana.”
“Show him the cartoon Erika,” says a gleeful Mr Barnby. It’s a picture of their MP, their Prime Minister, mocked up to look like a banana.
Nor are they the only ones revolting in Mr Cameron’s back yard. “One of my leafleteers is a Conservative member of the county council cabinet, who was a great friend of Cameron,” says the ex-Conservative Mr Barnby. “Another is a Conservative cabinet member for West Oxfordshire District Council. They are both members of Mr Cameron’s local Conservative Association.”
Admittedly, the first person we bump into is a matronly Lib Dem-leaning pensioner who swats away Ms Barnby’s talk of being governed by unelected EU bureaucrats with the impeccably polite observation: “I don’t think it’s quite as crude as that.”
Not to worry, though, because here, bounding towards the green is a tall, angular figure in immaculate pinstripe. It's local chartered surveyor Jonathan Longden, 51. That’s his big red Brexit banner on the cottage overlooking the green. He spotted the notebook and is determined to tell us something. “I am furious with David Cameron,” he says, “Disgusted with him for running a bullying project fear campaign. And I’m a member of the Witney Conservative Party.”
So, umm, it’s not all Remain-themed harmony among the Witney Conservatives, then?
“The local party’s been blown to pieces,” says Mr Longden. And those divisions, apparently, are helping the Brexiteers win the friendly “Saturday battle” that takes place every weekend when the rival Leave and Remain campaigns set up their stalls almost next to each other in Witney town centre. “We get more people coming up to us than they do,” says Ms Barnby, 45, a medical diagnostics service engineer.
And yet Mr Barnby almost didn’t bother campaigning. He didn’t think there was a chance of winning. “But then I saw the newspapers, especially the popular ones like the Mail, talking about mass immigration and thought, ‘We’ve got some quite powerful stuff on our side.’”
You couldn’t really say immigration was the Barnbys’ main interest, though – even if they admit it helps on the doorstep. Ms Barnby talks approvingly of hardworking Poles who have settled in Witney. “My [French Canadian] wife is an immigrant,” says Mr Barnby.
And for Mr Longden it’s all about the economy, stupid. “We will dip, but in five years Britain will take off because people will want to trade with us,” he says, with such confidence that you almost forget those stories about the overwhelming majority of economists saying Brexit would damage UK growth prospects over the next five years.
Mr Barnby talks of democratic self-government, and about his book. Based on his own research in the National Archives, it outlines how Ted Heath’s government took us into Europe on the basis of “a big deceit”. Which does make you wonder what he calls that, ‘We send the EU £350m a week’ claim that adorns the Vote Leave battlebus and has been condemned by the head of the UK Statistics Authority as misleading – twice.
“I would say the real cost is a lot more than £350m,” insists Mr Barnby, “if you look at what small businesses also have to pay to abide by EU regulations. It’s true some comes back,” he admits, “but it has to be spent in ways approved by the EU, not in the most beneficial way for Britain.”
“When you are campaigning locally,” he insists, “You are too busy putting up posters to get into the nitty gritty. We are at the grassroots level,” agrees Ms Barnby. “We are not too involved in branding stuff. I am sure [the national campaign organisers] have done their homework.” And anyway, adds Mr Barnby, “Both sides have been playing the funny numbers game.”
Maybe we should talk about other numbers – ones that will matter on 23 June. “It will be close,” says Mr Barnby, “but I am 70 per cent confident it will be for Brexit.”
In Witney? The Prime Minister’s own patch? Mr Barnby grins. “You do chuckle sometimes.”
Whether Witney’s other David will be chuckling is another matter.
The EU referendum debate has so far been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until 23 June we we’re running a series of question and answer features that explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision.
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