IN EXETER, encircled by a lively Christmas market in full throttle, a group of XR protesters were the warm-up act for the hustings inside the cathedral.
Wearing fairy lights (eco-powered) they danced to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”, before neatly stacking their placards in the back of the cathedral and joining the 300 others inside.
Just four of Exeter’s six candidates attended. The Brexit Party’s Leslie Willis was AWOL somewhere in Wiltshire, and the Independent candidate — the city theatre’s pantomime dame, Daniel Page — was unable to attend.
The Dean, the Very Revd Jonathan Greener, had grouped into themes the 80 questions submitted by the public in advance. One third of all submitted questions were on the climate crisis, he noted. Not one was about the NHS. Other questions touched on homelessness, Brexit, and the lack of trust in politics.
The serving MP, Ben Bradshaw, who, for 22 years, has represented Exeter — an isolated spot of Red and Remain in a predominately Blue and Leave West Country — is asking for another term. Several of the questions were clearly aimed at him, such as: “How can we vote for a local candidate, however attractive, if we can’t stand the leader of his party?”
There was a lot of Labour support in the audience, although the Green candidate, Joe Levy, was also popular. A largely well-behaved audience broke into boos only once, when the UKIP candidate, Duncan Odgers, talked about “white flight” from other parts of the UK to the South West. Otherwise, when Mr Odgers prefaced his responses with “You’re going to hate me for saying this but I’m going to anyway. . .” the audience remained politely silent.
The question of Brexit exercised many. Mr Bradshaw said that the only way to stop Brexit was to elect Remain-supporting MPs. “Everything else is just noise.” He suggested that a campaign should not be led by politicians, but by Remain-supporting business people, young people, and community activists. The idea was welcomed warmly, and also neatly sidestepped questions about his own leader’s neutrality.
John Gray, the Conservative candidate, insisted that Brexit had to be “done” as it was a “running sore” for the country. However much the city of Exeter backed Remain, its electorate had to accept that they were on the losing side of the vote.
It was overwhelmingly a good-natured debate, and avoided the vitriol of the national stage. All complied with the Dean’s ban on abuse, although the final summing-up from Mr Gray, in which he described Boris Johnson as “visionary and decisive”, earned a roar of laughter. By contrast, Mr Bradshaw’s description of the “Get Brexit done” slogan as the “most dishonest statement I’ve heard for years” provoked a storm of applause.
Click to read exclusive pieces from Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn, and Jo Swinson