The city awaiting a Brexit bombshell: After Peterborough voted to replace disgraced MP Fiona Onasanya, the favourites are parties most vocal about leaving or remaining in the EU
Has there ever been a time when the future of Britain appeared so unpredictable? Or when our country seemed so divided?
The old certainties we took for granted are crumbling before our eyes as Brexit exerts its relentless grip and tears down political shibboleths.
We are entering a new world where the divisions are no longer Tory versus Labour, but Brexit versus Remain. And as opinions harden, those who equivocate on the issue are trampled into oblivion, leaving the old party system in tatters.
We are entering a new world where the divisions are no longer Tory versus Labour, but Brexit versus Remain. Pictured is the chair of the Brexit Party Richard Trice (third left) with a team of canvassers outside the Brexit Party HQ in Peterborough
How else can we explain the startling poll yesterday that showed Tory and Labour — both parties that have failed utterly to put forward convincing positions on Brexit — had been overtaken by those political outliers, the staunchly remain Lib Dems and the leave-at-all costs Brexit Party? Pictured is Mike Green, Brexit Party candidate canvassing in Peterborough
Richard Trice, Brexit Party chair, outside its HQ in Peterborough
How else can we explain the startling poll yesterday that showed Tory and Labour — both parties that have failed utterly to put forward convincing positions on Brexit — had been overtaken by those political outliers, the staunchly remain Lib Dems and the leave-at-all costs Brexit Party?
Truly, a revolution seems to be taking place.
And nowhere are the drumbeats of that revolution being heard more strongly than in Peterborough.
For next Thursday, a by-election takes place here in this ancient cathedral city, which will prove a bellwether of Britain’s future.
Today, amid razzmatazz and banner waving, Nigel Farage and his adjutants roar in to Peterborough.
This morning in the art-deco Broadway Theatre they will give rousing speeches before setting off to knock on front doors to urge the folk of this city to send the Brexit Party’s first MP to Westminster next week.
Today, amid razzmatazz and banner waving, Nigel Farage and his adjutants roar in to Peterborough. Pictured is Peterborough Cathedral
The by-election is happening only because the previous MP, Labour’s Fiona Onasanya, was forced to step down by her constituents after being jailed for lying about a speeding offence. Pictured is Brexit Party candidate Mike Greene
Peterborough is, on many levels, a microcosm of what is happening across Britain where voters, appalled by the sleaze, ineptitude and hypocrisy of the established political class, seem prepared to give others a chance.
The by-election is happening only because the previous MP, Labour’s Fiona Onasanya, was forced to step down by her constituents after being jailed for lying about a speeding offence.
And, ironically, it was Onasanya, not long out of prison, wearing an ankle tag and under a curfew, who played such a pivotal role in MPs’ decision to block a No-Deal Brexit in April.
Her single vote meant the motion was passed by a margin of 313 to 312.
Farage’s men and women already have their tails up after their European election successes when they captured 29 seats and humiliated the Tory and Labour parties
Farage’s men and women already have their tails up after their European election successes when they captured 29 seats and humiliated the Tory and Labour parties. It is not yet certain what response the new political party — with no manifesto policies apart from prising the UK from Europe — will encounter in this multi-ethnic city, which even the thousands of newcomers, many of them from Poland, nickname ‘Polish-borough’.
‘We have a massive hill to climb,’ admits one Brexit Party insider of the bid to get their candidate — multi-millionaire local businessman with the very British name of Mike Greene — into Parliament.
And walking the streets of Peterborough this week I could understand why. Turkish-born Suleyman Ustuner, 55, who runs a kebab shop and has lived here for years, would not tell me who he planned to vote for, but he did not sound a fan of Europe: ‘I want the best for Britain. While we stay in Europe, we can’t stop all sorts coming here to live.’
He pointed out that, while there are those from abroad in Peterborough who work hard, there were also plenty of incomers who were doing the opposite and ‘just take what they can from this city’.
Why, he reasons, would these people vote for a Brexit Party which could make life difficult for both them and future immigrants?
Yet here is the remarkable fact: almost every person I meet who once voted Tory or Labour is now Brexit Party or Lib Dem or, in the case of one, UKIP.
Almost every person I meet who once voted Tory or Labour is now Brexit Party or Lib Dem or, in the case of one, UKIP
Mr Ustuner is sitting at a busy cafe on Lincoln Road, a shabby thoroughfare stretching forever with shops and small businesses that show the recent history of Peterborough’s rapid demographic change
Mr Ustuner is sitting at a busy cafe on Lincoln Road, a shabby thoroughfare stretching forever with shops and small businesses that show the recent history of Peterborough’s rapid demographic change.
Here, Italian, Portuguese, Iraqi, Turkish, Polish, Lithuanian, Albanian, Kosovan, Afghan, Indian and Afro-Caribbean takeaways, barbers, and coffee bars stand along the pavements one after another.
It’s a far cry from the well-tended lawns around the cathedral one-and-a-half miles away where Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon is buried, and which draws tourists in their hundreds on the 47-minute fast train from London.
The city has seen its population surge from 157,000 to 200,000 since 2001, an increase that has brought with it a rapidly changing electorate.
For years, it was a tightly fought seat with Conservatives vying against Labour for supremacy. In the 2017 General Election, hard-line Tory Brexiteer Stewart Jackson lost, after 12 years in the constituency, by just 607 votes to Labour’s Onasanya.
Her tawdry behaviour and ‘sacking’ by the voters here earlier this year mean all eyes are now on Peterborough. For what they decide here on Thursday could be reflected in a future General Election.
Certainly, readers of the local newspaper have decreed by a huge margin in a poll that Brexit, rather than immigration, is the biggest issue in this by-election. The poll does not reveal, however, whether Remainers or Leavers have the upper hand.
What is indisputable is that the parties of old — Tory and Labour — are worried that Farage’s upstarts or even ardent Remainers voting for the Liberal Democrats will outshine them next week. This is despite the 2016 referendum result which saw Peterborough vote solidly 61 per cent in favour of leaving Europe.
Few know better about how the land lies than the vicar of Peterborough, 56-year-old Canon Ian Black, who on Tuesday night, ran a hustings event at his church. He invited eight of the Parliamentary candidates standing next week to speak, and hundreds of local people questioned them.
He admits that there were not many ‘Asian or black’ people in the audience. Nor, he says, did he hear a lot of strong foreign accents, an indication perhaps that recent arrivals had not put in an appearance.
But he resents the claim, made by some in Peterborough I spoke to, that the people who attended the hustings were ‘all white and all old’ or even ‘racists’ who would automatically support Brexit.
Certainly, readers of the local newspaper have decreed by a huge margin in a poll that Brexit, rather than immigration, is the biggest issue in this by-election
Here, Italian, Portuguese, Iraqi, Turkish, Polish, Lithuanian, Albanian, Kosovan, Afghan, Indian and Afro-Caribbean takeaways, barbers, and coffee bars stand along the pavements one after another
At the event, the Brexit Party hopeful Mr Greene ridiculed the main parties for drawing up manifesto policies for Peterborough they then spectacularly failed to deliver. ‘They might as well have been written on toilet paper,’ he told the audience, to cheers.
Afterwards Canon Black said of the hustings: ‘There was no clear winning side. If I were to guess, the Lib Dems and the Brexit Party did well. But the Brexit candidate, Mike Greene had no manifesto policies on education, climate challenges or social issues, for instance. He only talked about getting out of Europe’.
Peterborough has its problems. There is homelessness, worries that the local schools are not up to scratch, a desire for a university to bring in the young skilled, and a sense that the city has not got a fair share of Government money. On the other hand, it has a respectable employment rate, good rail links, prospering light industry with the third-fastest growing local economy in the UK.
As Lib Dem campaigner Nick Sandford told the Mail: ‘There are more pluses than minuses’.
Whatever the truth, the by-election fight is shaping up to be dirty. In the gardens surrounding the Conservative campaign headquarters in Dogsthorpe Road, red Labour Party posters have been erected on wooden signs. When I asked a young man at Tory HQ if this was a case of dirty tricks, he answered: ‘Inevitably’.
I knocked on the door of one neighbour to ask how such a poster had turned up in her garden opposite the Tory HQ. A smiling 37-year-old Nazia Kausar, wife of a taxi driver and mother of three, said: ‘A man came round yesterday who I had never seen before. He asked if he could put it there. I am going to vote Labour so I let him.’
Meanwhile, Labour is targeting the Brexit Party, too. An email to members in the region pleads: ‘In Peterborough we are in for the fight of our lives. The Brexit Party is doing well. And if we don’t do something, they could get their first MP.’
Labour’s fears became even clearer when it ran an advertisement attacking Farage’s party on Thursday in the Peterborough Telegraph. The ad was deliberately produced to confuse voters (some of whom may have limited English) on a Brexit-turquoise background with the headline: ‘Here’s what you need to know about the Brexit Party: No plans to tackle crime, no idea how to fix the broken school system, no policies to clean streets.’ Before it went to print, however, the newspaper, out of courtesy, let the Brexit Party know what its rival was up to.
Within an hour, the Farage machine produced a slick one of its own in socialist red saying: ‘Here’s what you want to know about the Labour Party …. the last Labour MP for Peterborough (Fiona Onasanya) cast the decisive vote to block Brexit in Parliament.’
All this may look like small beer, local skulduggery and far removed from the Westminster bubble. But things are getting heated because the upcoming result is so important to all parties and may hint at the UK’s future political path.
In the hunt for potential Lib Dem voters, I found myself close to the cathedral at the smart home of theologian Dr Natalie Watson, a British citizen but who hails originally from Germany.
She attended the vicar’s hustings and said: ‘I’ve always voted Labour, but the only way to get us out of this mess is go with the Lib Dems.
‘People here are uninformed about Brexit. They support it because they think immigrants are taking their jobs, but there is work here for anyone if they go for it.’
The owner of the Spar supermarket near the cathedral agrees. He is debonair Sanjay Khunti, 43. Born in Peterborough, and of Ugandan Asian heritage, he speaks with a cut-glass accent and jokes that he has had elocution lessons.
A disillusioned Tory, his message is clear that the Lib Dems ‘may sneak in here’. He says Peterborough is ‘an absolute dump’ with poverty rife. People are so poor they think twice about buying even a multi-pack of crisps.
How, he wonders, will Nigel Farage’s party help them when their candidate Mr Greene makes no mention of how he would solve the city’s woes?
At the Brexit Party campaign headquarters close to the cathedral, you appreciate his point. Holding court is multi-millionaire property tycoon Richard Tice, 54.
Last week he won a seat in the European Parliament for the East of England.
Public-school educated and dressed in an expensive-looking suit, he is eloquent, confident and surrounded by acolytes — devoted Brexiteer men and women in their 50s and older — who clap him furiously as he talks about his party’s campaign.
Back in Lincoln Road, at a cafe bar, I talk to Janet Tobolik, who is 65 and half Polish. A devout Eurosceptic, she says only one party cares about Peterborough’s problems. She is voting UKIP.
‘There is rubbish on the streets. This is my country and you suddenly find a settee in the middle of the road. Peterborough is a slum. They drop everything these immigrants.’
Down the street, a 73-year-old man who called himself Mr Dhillon, said: ‘I have lived here since 1967. I always supported Labour. But they and the Tories have done no good for Peterborough. I think we should leave the EU and then we can start again.’
Yes, as it stands, it is Farage who is on a roll. He is hoping to bury his opponents in Peterborough, just like Catherine of Aragon, and the odds are hugely on his Brexit Party’s side. Next Thursday we’ll discover if the people of this city will change the future of British politics.