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“This is bigger than just Brexit”: how Gina Miller held the government to account over the EU

She learned Article 50 off by heart and faced off against Nigel Farage on The Andrew Marr Show. But Miller says it's not just about Europe.

The high court ruling on Article 50 has thrown the government’s Brexit plans, such as they were, into disarray. The judgment in effect blocks the Prime Minister from acting without a parliamentary vote. It is a decision that has elicited howls of betrayal from Brexiteers, sparked calls for “peaceful” riots in the streets and led to three of the nation’s top judges being vilified as “enemies of the people” in the press. At the centre of all this is Gina Miller – the lead claimant in the case.

With Labour struggling to articulate its position, it has fallen to this former model-turned-financier and philanthropist to hold the government to account. Miller, who was born in what was then British Guiana (now Guyana), has been hailed by some as a hero and reviled by others as an agent of the moneyed “elites”.

“I’m doing [Labour’s] job . . . It’s disgraceful,” she says. A lifelong Labour voter, she recently withdrew her support in response to what she saw as the party’s rising anti-Semitism.

I meet Miller, who is 51, at Home House, a private members’ club in central London. It is early but the high-ceilinged drawing room is already full of suited types eating breakfast and tapping at laptops. Miller sits in the corner, her petite frame spread across a velvet sofa. She is smaller and more striking in person than in photographs, elegantly attired in a black-and-white trouser suit with a poppy on her lapel. For someone who has become the target of racist and sexist abuse, she is surprisingly relaxed. Her husband and business partner, Alan, a multimillionaire who set up one of the UK’s first hedge funds in 1997, hovers nearby. “I’m the bodyguard,” he says half-jokingly.

Miller’s “steely fearlessness” became clear to the public when last Sunday she faced off against Nigel Farage on The Andrew Marr Show on BBC1. “I was shaking,” she says. She calmly asked the Ukip leader if he had read her case and forced him to concede that the referendum result was indeed only advisory.

The backlash against her has since taken a darker turn. She consulted the police after a Facebook campaign called for her to be shot and put in a rubbish bin. There have been threats of an acid attack, and racial abuse. “The racism is extraordinary,” she tells me. “People say things like, ‘She is black and therefore a primate, so we should hunt her down.’”

On the night of the EU referendum, Miller was at home with her husband and their two children in Chelsea, central London. As her family slept, she sat up watching television. The result was a shock to her. “I felt like I was in a dream . . . The only thing I can compare it to is a similar feeling I had when I heard that Princess Diana had died.”

She felt compelled to act after her 11-year-old son woke up the next morning and burst into tears on hearing that Britain had voted to leave the EU.

If Miller is tough, it is because she has had to be. Born into a prominent political family in Guyana, she was sent overseas when she was ten to attend Roedean, the boarding school in Brighton. She was bullied; in their teens, she and her brother lived alone in a flat in Eastbourne. Miller had to take odd jobs to survive; she was a chambermaid for a while.

After school, she studied law at the University of East London but dropped out before her final exams. She married her first husband at 21 (Alan is her third) and became pregnant with her first child. Her daughter suffered brain damage at birth and, by the age of 23, Miller was living in an east London flat, the single mother of a disabled child.

She worked as a waitress at Pizza Express and handed out flyers outside a mobile-phone shop in the cold for extra cash. “My values and principles are the same now as they were then,” she says, angry at the idea that if you are successful, you automatically become one of the elite.

Politics is in her blood. Miller’s father, Doodnauth Singh, was involved in opposition politics when Guyana was under the dictatorship of its strongman leader Forbes Burnham in the 1970s and 1980s. He later became the country’s attorney general and died in 2013. Being in the courtroom during the Brexit case brought back memories of him. Miller quotes a line from John Mortimer’s play A Voyage Round My Father: “My father sent words into the courtroom, as if they were soldiers into battle.”

Miller still feels the loss of her father and has inherited his legal acuity. She studied the wording of Article 50 while touring the UK during the referendum campaign to speak in support of the EU.

“I knew those 250 words inside out,” she says. She was most concerned about the constitutional precedent it would set if Theresa May made decisions about Britain’s future behind closed doors. “This is bigger than just Brexit,” Miller says. “What is so ironic is that this is a case saying we are not a dictatorship, and that is exactly what [May] is doing.”

Alan rushes over with the news that protests are being organised outside their offices in London. “Oh, my goodness,” Gina Miller says, abandoning her breakfast of smoked salmon and avocado. Her composure briefly slips. She is outraged but there is also a momentary hint of vulnerability. Then it’s gone, and her perfect smile is back.

Would she consider a career in politics? “Absolutely not,” she says, laughing, and points out that it is her independence from any party that has given such weight to her campaign. “Can you imagine me as a politician being whipped? I’d last a week.” She might be right, but it would certainly be fun to watch. 

Serena Kutchinsky is the digital editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump apocalypse

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.