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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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

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

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