Winsford is not one of Cheshire’s stereotypically leafy, affluent communities. An overspill town from Liverpool and home to the UK’s largest salt mine, Antoinette Sandbach thinks it is one of the most pro-Brexit parts of her sprawling rural constituency of Eddisbury.
The safe Tory seat is estimated to have voted 52% in favour of leave in the referendum, which the former Conservative MP says she has tried to reflect: she voted for Theresa May’s deal, but was one of the 21 Tories to lose the whip for voting to rule out no deal.
On Tuesday evening, the rebel MP voted in favour of the government’s Brexit deal, but joined Labour MPs and fellow ex-Tories to block its proposed fast-track timetable. On Wednesday morning, shoppers in Winsford’s precinct were split on whether it was the right move.
Eileen Barnabas, 82, voted remain and supports her MP’s call for a second referendum. “There’s so many people who will be affected if we do come out,” she says, and in the event of no deal, “it would be worse again”.
She thinks the parliamentary shenanigans have been “ludicrous”, and is unsure how she’d vote in a general election: “I used to vote Labour but I’m not too happy with them, but I certainly wouldn’t vote Conservative.”
Leanne Dickinson, 55, was not eligible to vote in the referendum because she’s a Dutch citizen. However, she’s grateful for her MP’s actions on behalf of her children, who she says are staunch remainers, and is also hoping for a second referendum.
“Lots of people have an idea that the UK can go back to the good old days and this belief that everything in the UK is really, really great … and it isn’t,” she says. “When people voted for leaving, they weren’t voting against the EU, but more about issues within the UK.”
However, not everyone agrees. Sol Vernon, 20, and Katie Moss, 19, are in town to celebrate the first birthday of their son. The mechanic and stay-at-home mum, who didn’t vote in the referendum, say they don’t have a clue what’s happening with Brexit and don’t really care. Regarding Sandbach, Vernon says: “All I know about [her] is that she’s been getting a lot of grief.” Last week, the MP lost a vote of no confidence from Eddisbury’s Conservative association.
Vernon adds: “To be honest, I just want it over and done with … and take the consequences.” He says he would probably vote for Boris Johnson in a general election, although Moss says she’d vote with the rest of her Labour-supporting family.
Dilip Solanki-Koli, 64, groaned when Brexit was mentioned. A refugee from Uganda in the 70s, the army veteran was selling poppies in the shopping centre when the Guardian spoke to him. He served in Northern Ireland and says he doesn’t want anything to threaten peace in the region but says he’s “sick of it”.
He adds: “The country voted to come out and the politicians are just playing games.” He won’t say how he voted in the referendum but says he won’t take part in an election. “Parliament is not doing what it’s supposed to,” he says. “They’re supposed to represent the people, but they’re not at the moment. I’m not going to vote at all.”
Sandbach says her office runs regular surveys asking constituents what they think and is confident she continues to represent those views in Westminster. She objects to her depiction in some of the press as an “arch-remoaner”, pointing out that she has voted in favour of a deal to leave at “every single opportunity”. She says: “I’ve rebelled on process and I believe that parliament should have a say. I’m protecting parliamentary sovereignty against the executive.”
She says she is appealing against the withdrawal of the Conservative whip and won’t be drawn on whether she’ll stand as an independent MP if she is not accepted back into the party.
She thinks Brexit has “broken down the old party loyalties” and her “principled stance” has earned her respect. “People have genuinely seen that I’ve been willing to put my job on the line for their interests. And there aren’t many MPs that do that.”
One of those is Steve Connor, CEO of a communications agency. He lives in a village outside Malpas, where some of Sandbach’s relatives’ names are displayed on the war memorial. Connor, 50, is a lifelong Labour voter and ardent remainer, but admires the “bravery” and “leadership” the MP has shown. He feels “totally disenfranchised” and admits he would feel torn in a general election. “If I was faced with a choice of a strongly anti no-deal, anti-Brexit rebel Tory v a Labour Brexiteer, I’d have no choice. I’d be voting, for the first time in my life, not Labour but for an ex-Tory.”
Although he disagrees politically with many of his neighbours, he says “there is no culture war going on”. “My neighbours are still my neighbours, we still have our kids in the same swim team and we have so many values in common.”
Sandbach says she is exhausted by the vitriol and “the hate”. She adds: “Frankly, whatever happens in the election, I know that I will have left my mark on Eddisbury, because I got some really major projects through that will change people’s lives locally. And that’s why I do my job.”