- The Washington Times - Monday, December 25, 2017

NORTHALLERTON, England — People don’t beat around the bush in North Yorkshire — their no-nonsense attitude is a point of pride for those who live in this picturesque corner of England.

Up here, over 230 miles from cosmopolitan London, people offer a damning end-of-year report for Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit performance, as Britain struggles through the messy process of untangling itself from the European Union.

“I’d give her a four out of 10 — if she’s lucky,” said Chris Penketh, a 54-year-old business development director. “The government is extremely weak. I had faith in Prime Minister May, but that’s been utterly shattered because the Brexit negotiations have been shambolic.”

Mr. Penketh, along with the majority of other voters in this part of the country, opted to leave the EU on June 23, 2016. In the greater Yorkshire region, 58 percent backed the Leave campaign, compared with 52 percent of voters nationally.

After the referendum, Prime Minister David Cameron resigned and was replaced by Ms. May, who took the reins in triggering the Brexit procedure with Brussels before calling a snap election in which she was largely expected to win a landslide.

But the move backfired: She lost her Conservative Party’s hard-fought and slender parliamentary majority while maintaining just enough seats to cling to power.

With Ms. May weakened and the united EU countries emboldened, many here would say the government’s luck has since gone from bad to worse.

“They are just about holding things together. There is no strategy,” said Tim Oliver, an analyst at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“The polling tells us that Leave voters are angry at how negotiations are going and that they know it’s going badly, but that they don’t think Brexit is a mistake. They just think the EU is being unfair and Her Majesty’s government incompetent,” he said.

That stance resonates with Mr. Penketh. He said he would still opt to leave the EU if asked to vote again.

“I have a deep and abiding mistrust of Brussels,” he said. “The commissioners aren’t elected, and they’re building a mini-empire.”

This rural part of England is about as quintessentially British as it gets. Cricket is the preferred pastime, tea is famously blended and the provincial capital, Northallerton, with a population of 17,000, was established as a market town by royal charter back in 1200. There’s still a market here every Saturday and Wednesday.

Though it may be far removed from London, that isn’t to say this secluded plot of England is poor. Farming and tourism are the main industries, and unemployment is below the national average at just 2.2 percent.

The reasons behind North Yorkshire’s support of Brexit differ from those of more deprived parts of the United Kingdom, locals say.

“I wasn’t terribly concerned with immigration from the EU,” Mr. Penketh said. “Every time there is a Leave voter on the TV, it’s a rabid moron saying bad and vaguely racist things, but the issue of sovereignty is hardly ever mentioned, and that’s why I voted to leave. It’s about self-determination.”

Other Leave voters agree.

“The main reason for my vote was to regain sovereignty. I could see Britain slipping away, and it was the unelected EU Commission, not our Parliament, that was governing this country,” said Peter Bennett, 64, a retired middle manager.

Respite for May

As the country takes a break from politics for Christmas, Ms. May has been afforded a brief and rare measure of relief.

That’s because the EU negotiators have just agreed that sufficient progress has been made on the so-called divorce proceedings — officially the terms by which the U.K. can leave, but unofficially how much money the British exchequer will have fork over to the bloc to cover its budgetary commitments.

That means the talks can finally move on to what the May government has been itching to discuss: the future trade relationship with the EU.

Getting to this point has been arduous and at times embarrassing for the government. Officials on the Continent have regularly leaked details to the press that painted Ms. May as begging for help from the EU. The British government also had to agree to hand over a $70 billion divorce check to get this far. Ms. May has insisted the deal is “fair to the British taxpayer.”

“It’s more than double what we expected the bill to be, but it’s over a period of time, and I think it’ll still be worth it,” said retiree Mr. Bennett.

The EU’s stance in negotiations has even alienated the minority of those in this region who voted to stay in the union.

“Europe has been very immature, and it’s mainly the French behind it,” said 48-year-old lawyer Catherine Bell, who voted against Brexit. “They’re always impossible to deal with.”

But Mr. Oliver with the London School of Economics contends that the EU is the more stable of the two partners in negotiations.

“The overall state of the negotiations remains one where the EU is in control,” he said. “The U.K. is largely reactionary to the negotiations as they unfold. They rarely look ahead or think about the bigger picture.”

Mr. Penketh agrees, much to his chagrin: “It’s a national embarrassment. I can’t even watch anymore.”

Ms. May is perceived to have a poor negotiating stance — not least because she is consistently being undermined by the opposition Labor Party gains in the polls, pro-EU lawmakers in her own party and the Liberal Democrats, which are still campaigning for the U.K. to stay in the EU.

Some Liberal Democrats have even suggested that Brexit might never happen — but that’s not a message voters here are buying.

“The Liberal Democrats are irrelevant,” Ms. Bell said.

Others agreed: “There are a lot of people trying to halt Brexit, but thankfully they’re not in a position to do anything about it,” Mr. Bennett said.

As the prime minister gets ready to begin discussions on trade in the new year, it’s unclear whether Britain will also opt to leave the EU’s customs union. Doing so would mean the U.K. is free once again to negotiate its own trade deals with other countries such as the United States.

Trying to stay in the customs union has angered some Brexiteers because trade was one of their main economic arguments to justify leaving.

“You can’t get divorced and live together,” Mr. Penketh said. “You either do it or you don’t — and we voted to do it.”


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