Miller's tale

The fact that Parliament is getting to vote on the Brexit bill is down to Gina Miller’s law suit against the government. Now she’s campaigning to stay in the EU. But isn't it too late for Remainers?

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Gina Miller imagined her political campaigning might end when she won the momentous High Court case forcing the government to put its Brexit deal to parliament. But she hadn’t bargained that Theresa May would appeal – albeit unsuccessfully – and more than two years later, with the government still struggling to get MPs’ backing for almost anything, she’s still here.

Along the way, there have been more campaigns for Miller: tactical voting against a hard Brexit in the 2017 general election, and the optimistically titled End

The Chaos, which provides detailed information on Brexit-related topics ranging from no deal and the veterinary profession to the merits or otherwise of a Canada-style trade deal.

“I haven’t got any plan,” says the 53-year-old businesswoman and philanthropist. “I sort of pop up when I think there’s something that can be helpful. I didn’t envisage I’d be in this position I am now.”

Is May deliberately running down the clock or is she just paralysed? “Absolutely she’s doing it on purpose. This is a charade.”

Which is currently, as founder of Lead Not Leave, campaigning to stay in the EU and reform it, using the terms of a deal the EU offered to David Cameron before the 2016 referendum. But with Brexit of any type looming on 29 March, she’s cutting it fine. Is May deliberately running down the clock or is she just paralysed?

“Absolutely she’s doing it on purpose. This is a charade. If it wasn’t so tragic it would be funny.”

Brexit secretary Steve Barclay is shuttling to and from Brussels to see EU negotiator Michel Barnier, but while there are lavish dinners to hand, there is no movement on anything other than the bill for plane tickets. “He could have done it with a five minute phone call.”

A frustration with politicians informs this nevertheless political woman. Born in Guyana, her father was an opposition politician under the country’s dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s who went on to be attorney general. She was sent to boarding school in Eastbourne at an early age. .

She studied law at the University of East London but, she recently revealed, was brutally attacked just before her finals so did not sit them. She then gained a degree in marketing and human resource management from London University.

She went on to own a photo lab, was a marketing manager for BMW, started a financial services marketing agency and, in 2009, set up, with her husband, an investment firm. At the same time she established Miller Philanthropy, now the True and Fair Foundation. Among other projects, it has funded Barnardo’s work on child sex abuse in Rochdale and a report on modern-day slavery.

In 2012 Miller riled many of her peers with a campaign against the hidden charges and high costs of asset management. Although some would have little sympathy for rich people paying a bit over the odds to get richer, she lobbied politicians and regulators hard to force fund managers to be more transparent about fees.

Now, she says, Brexit is getting in the way of “big timebomb questions” such as lower economic growth worldwide, ageing populations, environmental challenges, the need to police the internet and the foreign forces looking to undermine western economies and democracy.

“I just wish we had politicians who are more innovative and strategic rather than just being reactive and thinking about their own jobs. That’s a frustration I’ve had for a long time and I think we’re seeing it playing out through Brexit and other issues around the globe at the moment.”

Lead Not Leave’s proposals, insists Miller, offer a way out of the Brexit mire. She has cross-party support from Labour peer Helena Kennedy and Conservative Maurice Saatchi for its campaign to resurrect an offer from the dark and distant past of February 2016, when EU president Donald Tusk promised David Cameron that the UK would not have to join the euro or participate in Eurozone bailouts.

Also on the table were an opt-out for the UK on the EU’s ambition to seek an ever closer union, deregulation to improve economic competitiveness and, critically, an “emergency brake” on EU migrants claiming benefits.

Using this as a starting point Lead Not Leave believes it has engineered the basis to stay in the EU – but also reform it enough to satisfy some Leave voters and so respect the result of the referendum. The plan also includes bolting on a commitment to the European Human Rights Convention, reforms to procurement and competition laws said by some to hinder British firms tendering for big contracts, and a requirement for EU migrants to find a job within six months or leave.

“We’ve had two and a half years of chaos. Why not have five minutes of common sense?”

But Cameron couldn’t sell it to his eurosceptics then, and a 29 March Brexit leaves precious little time to try it now. Miller admits the proposals wouldn’t have flown in the pre-history days of 2016 and that it’s a late-in-the-day solution, but says timing is everything.

With a no-deal Brexit a growing possibility, and the EU beset by a growth in populism that could see the rise of the far right in May’s European Parliament elections, minds could be concentrated on both sides, says Miller. “We’ve had two and a half years of chaos. Why not have five minutes of common sense?”

Miller probably over-estimates the willingness of the EU to play ball after so much damage has been done to relations with the UK. Its leaders have gone unusually public in their exasperation with May in recent days. But she insists conversations with French president Macron’s advisers, and representatives from Germany and other member states, show there is an appetite for reform.

“It’s a combination of Brexit, which gave them a bit of a heart attack, but also it’s allowed a bit of space for a conversation that was more or less a dead conversation at Cameron’s time.”

Lead Not Leave’s plan would need a suspension of Article 50, pushing back the 29 March deadline – something she says is inevitable anyway – and either a general election or a second referendum. No deal, she says, “we all accept, is going to be a disaster”.

Miller says she doesn’t necessarily see Lead Not Leave as standing on its own.

“I avidly believe we have to exhaust all the parliamentary rules first. If there is no solution at that stage then we may well have to give it back to the people, either in an election or a people’s vote. I’ve never been swayed one way or another. Where I see Lead Not Leave sitting is, if it comes to a public vote, that that becomes one of the options.”

Miller has faced such abuse and violent threats while campaigning that she and her family have police protection. She worries less about online trolls and more about those who write her a threatening letter, find her address and a stamp, and tear themselves from their screen to get to a postbox.

She calls for better enforcement of incitement to violence laws rather than new legislation to curb the threats. Online platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are digital publishers and should be subject to the same regulation as other publishers, she says.

“It’s never stopped. The sad thing is I now think it’s normal. I have to stop myself thinking that. My husband tells me to stop it.

“Every so often something will happen, like I’ll be on College Green and someone will say: ‘Gas Gina Miller.’ I got followed the other day by someone who said we’re going to follow you in our car and throw acid at you and I think, do I stop? But the one thing I know about myself is that I won’t.

“I’ve never liked bullies. Those are the people we should be fighting. I don’t buy the view of some commentators and politicians that our whole society has changed – those extreme voices have always been there. But they’re not on the fringes any more. They’re somehow front and centre and they’re being allowed to have a much louder voice.”

Back in a saner world, Miller must contend with the criticism that she’s just another member of the elite trying to frustrate the people’s will over Brexit. She’s been recognised as such by overtures from the many centrist political parties threatening, but not quite managing to emerge. But, although their presentations are all “beautifully aspirational and nothing to disagree with”, where are the policies, she asks, and who will do the legwork? “I ask: ‘You do realise you have to leave your office and go out and campaign?’ Especially if they are business people. And I say: ‘Have you ever gone out and done that?’ And it tends to be no. Actually, one told me: ‘We’ll get people to do that.’ Which I thought was quite extraordinary.”

Miller – who says her campaigns are largely self-funded – can point to ComRes polling, for Lead Not Leave earlier this month, suggesting that 72 per cent of young adults aged 18-34 who express a preference would prefer the UK to remain a member of the EU along the lines of Lead Not Leave’s suggested reforms.

But on the other hand there are people who voted Remain who now want Brexit done and dusted as quickly as possible, and for some that even means no deal if necessary.

Miller puts that down to understandable “exhaustion”, saying: “All the campaigners, all the commentators, all the media – I don’t think we’ve explained enough that Brexit is not over with no deal or Mrs May’s deal. Because this is only the easy part. The most difficult part is to come yet.”

She adds: “The other thing that I find interesting about the whole Brexit debate is that for years and years we’ve been told there is no money for anything. All of a sudden there is money for all these no-deal preparations, there’s money for our foreign secretary to fly round the world doing all these trips. Where has all that money suddenly come from?

“Why have we not seen that money in our public services? Why have we had to go through austerity? Why did we not have this money before? Austerity was definitely a political choice, not an economic one.”

Through travelling around the country on her campaigns and by looking after her daughter, who is 30 but has special needs and a mental age of five or six, she says she is aware of the hardships people face.

She says she is “passionate” about tackling domestic violence, homelessness, mental health and the iniquities of Universal Credit. Charities tell her that although mental health is a major factor in homelessness, so too are problems with benefits for people with special needs.

“I think it’s criminally irresponsible the way Brexit has been negotiated because there has been no bandwidth for anything else.”

“I get the phone calls saying there’s a black young man who is six feet five and a gentle giant – this wonderful person but he’s been picked up because he’s living on the streets, because he didn’t know his Personal Indepenence Payment allowance for that week was actually for paying rent. No one wants to take him back.”

And, she says, the government has further neglected its obligation to address these problems because of Brexit. “I use these words very pointedly: I think it’s criminally irresponsible the way Brexit has been negotiated because there has been no bandwidth for anything else.

“Homelessness is a very complex issue and we should be tackling it. It’s the charities that are having to sort this out because it’s the politicians that are wasting time and money, and that’s why I say again that if they’re having to be taken out for the next three to five years to sort out Brexit they still won’t have bandwidth to sort out these problems.”

But if those next three to five years are going to be taken up, Miller is likely to be there too.

“I get criticised by people saying why am I doing this because I’m not an elected politician? I say politics is not something that happens in a building. It affects every single part of your life because politics is policies and policies are how you live and so everybody has a responsibility. I really do believe in collective responsibility and civic voice. I don’t think it’s just up to the politicians.

“I would argue that we’ve been a bit lazy and just left the politicians to get on with it, not just in the last five years but probably for the last two or three governments. We haven’t kept enough of an eye on them so maybe that’s what we should be doing: keeping a better eye on what our politicians are doing. Maybe they wouldn’t be getting away with so much.”

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