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5 September 2017

Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner on Brexit: “People might want to rethink”

How one of Labour's most Europhile MPs thinks we should weather the Brexit storm.

By Sanjana Varghese

“When people say Brexit is worth it, how much are they prepared to pay?” For Daniel Zeichner, the MP for Cambridge, the cost of Britain leaving the single market was too high. He resigned from Labour’s frontbench in June, in order to vote in favour of an amendment to the Queen’s Speech that backed Britain’s continued membership of the single market, despite Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn asking MPs to abstain.

While some Labour colleagues mourn the departure of traditional industries from their constituencies, Zeichner represents one known for its booming, hi-tech economy. Others may talk about the local Brexiteers; he talks of “the science vote”. So why does he fear leaving the single market so much, and what does he aim to defend about his constituency?

Zeichner’s office in Parliament Square is cosy; a colorful bulletin board has photos with his constituents, thank you cards, and various official briefing papers. There’s also a sweet Eighties-style poster featured prominently above his computer which he was given by his high school, Trinity in Croydon. It has several photos of him, and the former grammar school, overlaid with text such as “Cambridge MP” and “Trinity old boy”.

When he resigned from the front benches, he tweeted that he was a “straightforward politician and passionate pro-European”, both of which are evident throughout our conversation. Zeichner is soft-spoken but obviously passionate about his job, illustrating his beliefs with anecdotes from chatting to constituents. 

Born to Austrian and English parents, Zeichner studied history at King’s College, Cambridge, and stayed there after graduating to work in IT before moving out to the more affordable surrounds of East Anglia. It took him five attempts to get elected – he finally succeeded in 2015. Over that time, Cambridge had emerged as a quasi-Silicon Valley (the Cambridge Science Park, where many of the science and technology corporations are based, is affectionately nicknamed Silicon Fen).

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Zeichner represents “a small city” which is projected to “become many times bigger”. There are already increasing tensions because of more pressure on housing and transport. But when it came to electoral endorsements, it was the celebrated theoretical physicist and resident voter Stephen Hawking that Zeichner sought out

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“Generally, science policy doesn’t impact too much on voting,” he says. “But for a city like Cambridge, where so many are employed or know people in those sectors, it’s becoming much more of an issue.”

Then there’s Brexit. The University of Cambridge and associated research centres nearby, such as the Sanger Institute, receive more in funding from the European Research Council than some of the smaller countries in Europe. Zeichner says the uncertainty has already begun to affect the city, with researchers originally planning to come to Cambridge now deciding to go elsewhere. “I was struck by a number of people who said to me, I’ve lived here 20 years, I am a consultant in the NHS and I no longer feel welcome here,” he says. Brexit is feeding into office politics too: “They could even see some of their colleagues beginning to eye up the positions that would be freed up”.

Zeichner expects the full effects will be felt in four or five years. “I had loads of people coming into my surgery – where one person’s a UK national, and the other person is a EU national, and they had entirely expected for the foreseeable future to be living in Cambridge. After June last year, all that certainty is gone, particularly about the future of EU nationals.” 

Because of Brexit, there was speculation during the snap election campaign that the former incumbent, the Lib Dem Julian Huppert, would reclaim his Cambridge crown. Zeichner not only survived, but increased his majority by 12,661 votes, suggesting that it was not simply a case of reassuring Remain voters but benefiting from a youthful Corbyn surge. 

Zeichner stands by his decision to leave the front bench, and says he had been given “a lot of leeway” previously. “I would never vote to leave the EU, but I quite understand that it’s got to be a more nuanced position, for the Labour party as a whole, given that we have many voters who did vote Leave. But as the cost and implications become clearer, it’s only reasonable to suggest that people might want to rethink.”

Unsurprisingly, he supported Labour’s clarification on remaining in the single market, and praises shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer. “It makes Labour’s stance quite distinct from the government, and it could pressure them to take a more sensible position,” he says. 

Brexit is also sucking energy from day-to-day governing, he says, citing the government’s delayed response to a cycling and walking investment strategy campaign. “When we were asking questions about why it was so delayed, the answer was that they actually didn’t have anybody to work on it – you can see that replicated right across government. They’ve got very few people working on anything because everyone’s been diverted onto Brexit.”

As Parliament returns from recess, Zeichner is clear that the current government has a whole host of challenges to confront.”The Conservatives are an impediment to the future of the country now. We’ve clearly got issues around our National Health Service and a housing crisis. We’ve got a whole generation of young people who are being offered absolutely nothing at the moment. No real solutions are coming from the government on any of this”.

Zeichner is “confident” Labour will win the next election, and despite his own concerns, acknowledges it is unlikely to hinge on Brexit. “I’ve done many general elections through my life, and I can say hand on heart, that most people do not wake up in the morning worrying about the European Court of Justice. What they worry about is whether they can drop the kids off at school safely, and whether they’ll have a decent day – what worries people is much more fundamental, and that’s where Labour’s strong.”