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Theresa May In Brexit heartlands, clock ticks for PM to start Britain's EU divorce

Most of the assembled councillors and members of her Conservative party gathered at a party office in the market town of Coalville want her to do so within six months -- with one wishing she had done it "yesterday".

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In Brexit heartlands, clock ticks for May to start Britain's EU divorce play

In Brexit heartlands, clock ticks for May to start Britain's EU divorce

(Reuters)

In the English heartlands which voted heavily to leave the European Union, the wishlists are out: everything from reducing migration to bringing back the "crown" stamp on pint glasses in pubs.

None of it will be easy for Britain's new Prime Minister Theresa May, who quietly backed the campaign to stay in the EU but quickly appointed leave campaigners to key posts in her cabinet to show she is serious the vote for Brexit means Brexit.

She has said she will not trigger the negotiations to leave the 28-member bloc before the end of the year, to allow time for the country to work out what it wants from its new relationship with Europe and how it will go about getting it.

Most of the assembled councillors and members of her Conservative party gathered at a party office in the market town of Coalville want her to do so within six months -- with one wishing she had done it "yesterday".

"The pressure is on her," said Geraint Jones, a local Conservative councillor for Ashby-de-la-Zouch, another, smaller market town nearby. "I think we've got to show Europe a clean pair of heels and get it done quickly."

While they say they are willing to give May some time to build a case, they are not willing to compromise on what they see as a good deal; no freedom of movement from the other 27 members of the EU along with tariff-free trade.

Such a combination runs counter to EU rules, and European leaders, determined not to encourage euroscepticism elsewhere, have made clear they will not budge.

That piles the pressure on David Davis, the ardent eurosceptic May appointed on Wednesday evening to lead negotiations on exiting the European Union, and on May herself.

 

PATIENCE

Coalville, a former mining town now scattered with business parks and industrial estates, and Ashby-de-la-Zouch are the focal points of northwest Leicestershire - a bellwether region for political trends.

Split between its left-leaning former industrial regions and leafy villages, the region supported the main opposition Labour Party when it came to power in 1997 but by 2010 locals had switched in their thousands to the Conservative Party.

At the referendum, almost 61 percent voted to leave the European Union.

While Conservative lawmakers are divided about half-and-half between those who sought, like former prime minister David Cameron, to remain and those who have long clamoured to leave, among members, a YouGov survey showed 63 percent voted "out".

In Agar Nook, a public housing estate in Coalville with abandoned sofas in a couple of front gardens, anger over immigration is palpable and several there, who voted for the first time ever in the referendum and helped win the battle for leave, are clear that the numbers must be reduced soon.

Fifty-two-year-old Duncan McCulloch, a former warehouse worker now dependent on sickness benefit, points to several houses where he says Polish families have moved in. After 32 years of living there, he says racism is on the rise.

"It's not about colour now. It's about which country you come from," he said, explaining that many feel they are being pushed to the back of the queue for accommodation, school places and treatment in local hospitals.

As a former interior minister, May knows immigration is not easy to tackle. In six years in that job, she was unable to bring down the influx to "the tens of thousands" a year as her party promised.

 

SOVEREIGNTY

Most party members gathered in Coalville said their overwhelming desire is rather a return of sovereignty and English law -- to stop "Brussels making decisions for our country" as councillor Gill Hoult puts it.

For Evans it would also ease years of irritation by removing the 'CE' marking demanded by the EU for measuring instruments used in trade on his pint glass and return the crown stamp.

Changing such symbols looks easy compared with selling an eventual deal with an angry European Union to British voters assured by leave campaigners they would be better off but now confronted with a weaker pound and the prospect of job losses.

Appointed prime minister by only the votes of Conservative Party members of parliament, May will have to work hard not to face a similar fate to that of Gordon Brown, the last British leader to take on the top job without facing a general election.

He ended his career in 2010 after being named as Britain's most unpopular prime minister in half a century.

"I think she's going to have a tough time," said a senior Conservative Party member who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"An unelected prime minister with no mandate from the country or in fact from the party either -- although 200 MPs voted for her -- it could easily slide."

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