Brexit debate rages in Britain's Conservative heartlands

In the English town of Rayleigh, residents are still deeply divided about whether to stay or leave the European Union when they vote in Thursday's referendum, Laura Mackenzie reports.

From left: Terry Goodyear, 73; Les Shrubsole, 70; Bob Lutterloch, 81; Arthur Baldock, 77; and Peter Lewis, 78, may have been friends for over 20 years, but they are divided on the EU referendum to be held June 23, 2016. Laura Mackenzie for The National
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RAYLEIGH, UNITED KINGDOM // It's a weekday lunchtime and a group of five retired men, friends for over 20 years, are having their monthly "Boys' Breakfast". The location is The Roebuck pub in Rayleigh, a town roughly 50 kilometres east of London and a stronghold of the centre-right ruling Conservative Party.
The friends say they "put the world to rights" at their breakfasts "with the loser buying the drinks". And this time the topic of conversation is Thursday's referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union.
"I'm afraid I'm an out," says Les Shrubsole, 70, who along with his four friends is a Conservative supporter.
"Immigration[-wise] I just feel we would do better out rather than in. But my main thing is, I do not want a 'United States of Europe'. And in the next 30 years, you will get the United States of Europe. There will be no point voting in Conservative or Labour [the main opposition party] because they will just be overruled by Europe. We will lose all of our ability to run our country."
Although the debate between the five friends remains good-natured, elsewhere the contest is being bitterly fought.
The Conservative Party is split over the referendum, with prime minister David Cameron in the "Remain" camp, and former London mayor and MP Boris Johnson heading up the official "Leave" campaign.
Opinion polls on Tuesday confirmed that the outcome is still anyone's guess: a new poll conducted for The Times newspaper showed the Leave camp leading with two points ahead of Remain, while the final poll carried out for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers ahead of the referendum showed the Remain camp leading by seven points.
In Rayleigh, where local MP and the Conservatives' former Europe spokesman Mark Francois supports a "Brexit", Les and his friends are also split.
Like Les, Terry Goodyear, 73, is voting to leave the EU due to concerns about sovereignty and immigration. The other three men are voting to remain, however, saying they do not want to take away the choice from their grandchildren and that it may be a case of "better the devil you know". Seventy-eight-year old Peter Lewis also says he cannot see a problem with immigration when the UK's unemployment level is lower than it has been for a decade.
"This referendum has been very, very divisive . And this will carry on [beyond Thursday] because whoever wins it, there'll be nearly half of the country who still won't be satisfied. And the antagonism is not going to go away," says Terry.
"[Both sides] just went a little too much down the propaganda route instead of actually giving decent information," says Becky Waghorn, a 22-year-old learning support assistant at a secondary school and trade union member who arrived at The Roebuck later in the afternoon for an early pub dinner.
Last Thursday, the right-wing UK Independence Party, whose main raison d'être is to persuade Britain to leave the EU, released a controversial poster showing a queue of mostly non-white and male migrants and refugees with the heading "Breaking point: the EU has failed us all". The poster was strongly criticised by members of both camps with Mr Johnson stressing that it was "not our campaign" and "not my politics".
"One of the Sunday papers said the poster could have been issued by the Third Reich because it was so ignorant," says Lucy Stone, a 43-year-old stay-at-home mother who was meeting a friend in The Roebuck, before the afternoon school run.
Lucy is not a fan of Ukip and its leader, Nigel Farage - a former city trader turned self-styled "man of the people". She only decided at the end of last week that she was going to vote to remain in the EU and still doesn't know if she's made the right decision. But, she says, Mr Farage being in favour of something is enough to make her do the opposite.
"I would strongly come down [against] anything that was supported by Farage and people like that," she says, playing with the pro-Brexit beer mats that have been distributed in The Roebuck and throughout hundreds of other Wetherspoon pubs in the UK by the company's founder and chairman Tim Martin.
This opinion is not one shared by everyone in Rayleigh, however.
"I like him, Farage. I agree with a lot of what he says," says Tommy Varney, 20, who works as a machine operator. "A lot of people don't like him because he's too honest."
Longtime Conservative supporter Terry, meanwhile, says he has previously voted for Ukip because Mr Cameron is not a "true Conservative".
At last year's general election, Ukip came second in Rayleigh and the wider constituency with 22.3 per cent of the vote - a dramatic increase from its 4.2 per cent share in 2010. Meanwhile, one of the town's two elected representatives in the Essex county council is Ukip.
It perhaps seems strange that residents of Rayleigh - a town with a population of about 32,000 - would want to alter the status quo. Unlike many towns across Britain, it has a thriving high street where multinational companies such as Pizza Express, Marks and Spencer, Boots and Costa sit alongside independent businesses, including a greengrocer and a butcher. And although the workforce is not generally highly qualified, unemployment is low and the local constituency has the second highest rate of home ownership in England and Wales, according to BBC figures from last year.
Yet Tommy is still voting to leave the EU, "the reason being immigrants [and] the amount of money we give to the EU, we don't get anything back for it".
"I think that really, the money we spend sending to the EU we could put into the National Health Service."
Across from the "Boys' Breakfast", a group of five retired women sit having their own monthly get-together. They are all voting out, although they think Mr Farage is too right-wing. Like Tommy, they want to see more money put into the NHS and are also concerned about immigration and an erosion of sovereignty - but for them, it feels very personal.
"If there were houses for everybody, if there were no waiting lists for [social] housing, if we could get a doctor's appointment on the same day, if we didn't have to wait up to 18 months for hip replacements or knee replacements or whatever they may be, then that would be fine," says 69-year-old Linda.
"But how it can be that people come from overseas and are housed before our children? My youngest son has his own house but my older son doesn't - with his wife and twins - and, although he works all the hours under the sun, no hope really of getting on that housing ladder. And we can't see it getting any better."
Shortly after the women get up to go, a "Vote Leave" van drives past the pub, an elderly man waving out of the window of the front passenger seat with suitably patriotic-sounding music blaring.
"It's taking back control of our own destiny," adds Linda.