The Remain vigil, a perpetual presence at Westminster since the EU referendum, has been a notable publicity coup. Every live BBC or Sky News interview at College Green has the backdrop of blue-and-yellow-star flags and anti-Brexit placards. Viewers at home could be led to believe that only one side is protesting. But Leavers are there too, and I sometimes do a lunchtime stint with them.
Last Tuesday drew larger numbers, due to a series of crucial amendment votes in the House of Commons that could have scuppered our freedom from the tyranny of Brussels. For a while I stood with the ‘Hoot for Brexit’ regulars at Parliament Square, drawing plenty of support from black cabs, scaffolding trucks and the occasional London bus (also an Evening Standard delivery van, but don’t tell George Osborne).
A hundred yards along the road, the bright blue flags of the EU cult were flying high. But this Remain territory was being contested by a growing gathering of Brexit supporters. A dandy black man in a white suit emblazoned with Union Jacks, photogenic young women (some dressed as Suffragettes), and dozens of working-class men and women waving ‘Leave Means Leave’, UKIP or homemade placards.
At dusk a few yellow vests appeared, and suddenly the police presence intensified. The crowd began to sound more like Millwall than Millbank: ‘We are the patriots, you are the traitors’. Now we were being filmed by the Old Bill, who formed a ring around the foot of the King George column, protecting the EU fanatics on the steps. But the Leavers prevailed, capturing the ridge.
Nearby, another group of Remainers were chanting ‘People’s Vote’. They too were surrounded and challenged on their treasonous allegiance to a foreign power. ‘Baa’ was the denigrating retort. The entitled EU followers had not expected to be outshouted and outnumbered on their own patch. And rain was falling. Demoralised, several of them were seen sneaking off, raising the chant: ‘Where do they live? Hampstead. When’s bedtime? Now.’
This was fun: rowdy but not aggressive. However, we had worried the flock. I overheard two Remainers discussing the futility of reasoning with these awful Brexiteers, one suggesting they were ‘gypsies’. Some of us tried to ask them why we can’t make our own laws, or why they don’t respect a democratic vote. Reasonable questions, posed in an inquiring rather than inquisitorial way. But answers were rarely given. One smartly-dressed Remainer was like a child putting her fingers in her ears ‘I can’t hear you’, issuing a steady stream of ‘Leave means lies’.
Then a slightly bemused Shouty Steve appeared (this is the bloke you always see on TV, with his megaphone imploring ‘Stopppp Brexxxxit’). Strangely quiet was Steve, seeing his wet and miserable troops. Meanwhile the yellow vests were getting more raucous, bursting into ‘Soubry is a Nazi’. Two police officers told a lead singer to desist, but what was his crime? Immediately the overzealous police were confronted by angry campaigners asking why Anna Soubry herself hasn’t been reprimanded for calling Leavers ‘fascists’.
Who has the energy now? Not the declinists, who are increasingly exposed as not just pro-EU but anti-Britain. On the BBC later a reporter told the country that the mood among the protesters was ‘very subdued’. But we know whose side they’re on.