“People have died because of austerity,” a woman told Boris Johnson, buttonholing him in Doncaster last week. “And you’ve got the cheek to come here and tell us that austerity is over and it’s all good now.” It was her words, caught on cameras and phones, that hit a nerve, because she spoke for so many. No one remembers what Johnson said, or what he was doing there. Only yesterday, a man with a sick daughter berated the PM in a London hospital over waiting times, and on years and years and years of the “NHS being destroyed”.
A couple of weeks earlier it was the Portuguese woman who hijacked a live Sky News broadcast with an emotional plea. After 20 years living and working in Britain she didn’t know whether she was still welcome. “I need a voice, I gave this country my youth,” she said. “I looked after your children, I’ve looked after the elderly.”
And who can forget Brenda from Bristol. “You’re joking!” she spluttered at the man from the BBC, when he asked her about Theresa May’s decision to hold a snap election. “Not another one! Oh for God’s sake, I can’t stand this. There’s too much politics going on at the moment.” Brenda was surprised by the fuss, then annoyed. “Oh God no, go away,” she yelled from a window at some journalists recently when they called for her wisdom. These are the viral stars of Brexit Britain, the ordinary folk who are suddenly and briefly catapulted into the limelight. With a sentence or two, or just a look, they strike a chord with the nation. What is it like for them? What happens after their brief moments of fame? Does it make any difference? I caught up with a few – all of them women, because, interestingly, most of them are – to find out.
Harriet Ellis, #EyeRollGirl: ‘I ended up voting leave’
Harriet Ellis was in the queue to board the flight for her holiday. “The woman in front and her boyfriend kept taking selfies,” she remembers. “I was like: that’s so weird, why do you want to remember this moment, being in the Ryanair queue? And I kept getting in the picture, so I was dodging, I didn’t want to ruin this moment for them. Then I looked over at her phone and I just saw loads of pictures of my face. The woman had Googled me and was checking the picture to see if it was me.”
Then there was the time in Tesco, in Bristol. “This woman had the strongest Bristolian accent in the whole world, she was like [puts on strongest Bristolian accent in the whole world]: ‘Oh my God, your eyes are a legend.’ And I was like: ‘Thanks very much.’”
Ellis’s eyes are a legend. They achieved this status in November when their owner was sitting right behind Nigel Farage in a Channel 4 Brexit debate. It was his claim that Theresa May was delivering a “remainer’s Brexit” that caused them to perform what has been described as a “double axis roll”. The clip went viral, Harriet became #EyeRollGirl.
She was a student at Birmingham University at the time and got an email asking if she wanted to be in the audience for the debate. “I was like: I might as well, I’ve got nothing else to do,” she says. She is interested in politics and has always talked about it at home: “I know a bit, not like loads.”
She was not aware of the roll at the time, didn’t even know she was a roller, although afterwards her mum told her she’d had plenty of practice; she had spent years rolling her eyes at her. But after the debate someone asked if she had checked her phone. “Oh God, is someone dead? No, but there were 3,000 views on this gif, and I was like: wow, that’s fun. Then we were in the car on the way home and it just snowballed. If people were concentrating on my eyes it mustn’t have been that interesting a debate.”
At home she stayed up, looking at – and engaging with – all the reaction, even though she had a really important interview for a post-grad teaching degree at Oxford the following day. It was 99% nice, she says, 1% abuse. A man in Canada said he would like to take her out to dinner and propose to her.
In the morning, her phone wasn’t working. “It overheated from all the notifications. It took a while to calm down, I had 68,000 likes in 24 hours.” On the way to her interview she spoke to newspapers and magazines. “You feel like you’re on top of the world. I think it helped with the interview.”
Anyway, she got in, and will start the course this autumn – teaching in a secondary school (religious education, not politics). Does she think she has got Farage to thank for her career? “He did give me some confidence,” she says.
Extraordinarily, in the referendum, Ellis voted to… leave! (Now who’s doing the double-axis eye-roll?) But this had nothing to do with Farage. “I was at sixth form at the time; this was my first time voting; I was very interested in Lexit, leftwing Brexit, reading about how the EU promotes the immigration of white westerners and is sort of like a racist ideology in that it is at the expense of immigration from more deserving countries and people of colour. Also I didn’t like the fact that you didn’t know who was running it; you didn’t directly vote for the people at the top, and no one knows who their MEP is.” She would probably vote differently now though, because of the way it has turned out. “It’s an omnishambles, as Malcolm Tucker would say.”
Ana Telma Rocha, #PortugueseBrexitWoman: ‘I thought they’d cut it because I was just another nutter’’
Ana Telma Rocha came to this country from Portugal in 1999. It made her into the liberal, tolerant person she is, she says. “I was super-Catholic, a xenophobe, I thought gay people were dangerous. It educated me, it’s been wonderful and I love it.”
But, she says, recently the UK has become unrecognisable. In 2016, she was walking down the street in Sheffield, where she was living with one of her two sons. A man accelerated towards her at a crossing, stopping only metres from them. “He said: ‘Go back to your country, foreign scum.’”.
That’s when she decided her boys – one of whom has autism – would go to live in Portugal while she stayed here to work. “The toughest decision,” she says, choking up. She moved to London, to carry on her work as a carer for an agency. She gets moved around the country; when we speak she is on her way to a job in Suffolk. She has also worked as an actor.
It was after Johnson announced that he was suspending parliament that Rocha “absolutely lost it”. “I saw that this guy was going to push a no deal when the [EU] settlement scheme hadn’t even gone through and everything rushed to my head. I said: ‘Right, I’m going to go down to Westminster to get arrested.’”
She was not arrested, but she did interrupt a Sky TV broadcast covering the protests. “I need a voice,” she said, passionately. “I’ve worked here for 20 years and I have no voice. The resettlement scheme is not working.” She did not realise it was a live show. “I thought, I don’t know, that they’d cut it, because I was just another nutter off the street. But then everybody started to ring me and I thought: ‘God, this has gone a bit mad.’”
Soon she became Portuguese Brexit Woman, getting sympathy and abuse, especially when it emerged that she had helped set up a theatre company. She was a planted remoaner stooge, it was clearly fake news. “I knew that as soon as they found out I’m an actress they would say it was fake news,” she says. “But there were many more nice messages than – sorry – those idiots.”
Rocha’s main issue – like many other EU citizens in the UK, has been the laborious process – of applying for the EU settlement scheme; having to navigate seemingly endless technical issues, error messages and helpline hell while working up to 65 hours a week. Not as simple as the Home Office made out. But since her impassioned TV outburst, she has heard directly from the Portuguese consulate, which has offered to help. “I’m actually quite proud of Portugal,” she says. There is no such warmth towards Johnson. “God forgive him for what he’s done to England.”
Amelia McDowell, Question Time’s ‘future prime minister’: ‘My mate said you’ve hit a million views’
Amelia McDowell, 16, remembers getting the call. She was in the middle of an art class, at her school in Belfast. “I checked my voice messages and there was this really posh British woman. I said to my teacher: ‘This is important, do you mind if I get it?’”
The teacher agreed, McDowell went into the art cupboard, sat down among all the paint and the clay and called the woman back. “She’s asking me all these questions and I try to answer as best as I can with these pots of paint falling on my head, then she’s like: ‘That’s brilliant, we’d love to have you, we’ll send you the tickets.’ I hung up and just screamed.”
Tickets to a concert? The X Factor? Oh no. “I burst out of the art store and went, to my whole class: ‘I’M GOING TO BE ON QUESTION TIME!’”
McDowell watches the BBC politics debate every week. When there was an announcement that the show would be coming to Belfast (“It never comes to Belfast!”) she immediately applied to be in the audience.
A few days later, Dad dropped her off at the venue. “I knew I wanted to say something but it wasn’t like I had completely thought it out, it was mostly spontaneous.” What she did, when she got the chance, was to calmly deliver a damning indictment of the Conservative party. “David Cameron made the referendum policy because he didn’t want to risk losing 10 or 15 seats to Ukip, and look where it has got us,” she said. “This has always been because Tories are playing party politics with issues that are going to be huge, generational changes for all of us.”
She was soon being hailed for her eloquence and clarity. She set up a Twitter account, wrote: “Hi, this is me,” under her clip, and collected 8,000 followers overnight. Celebrities – Rob Delaney, Richard Bacon, Amanda Abbington – were retweeting it; here was the human embodiment of the argument to give the vote to 16-year-olds (a campaign that McDowell is now part of).
In English class the next morning, “friends kept refreshing their phones under the desk, and going: ‘It’s on 215,000 views now.’ I remember when my mate Erin just stood up and said it had hit a million. That night my friend Amy rang and she’s like: ‘Mimi, your video’s on Jeremy Corbyn’s Twitter!’ Then I checked my Twitter and like John McDonnell’s followed me! What’s going on?” It was really good, to have a platform at last, and to know people don’t actually think you’re talking crap when it comes to politics. But also part of me is like: there are like so many young activists my age or maybe a bit older who maybe have an understanding like mine or close to it but didn’t have the chance to go on Question Time and say something. That was luck and I’m very thankful for it.”
McDowell has certainly used her moment in the spotlight: she has been on the radio and written articles, and says she would have done more if her GCSEs had not got in the way. She is at sixth-form college now doing French, English language and biology. Not politics, incidentally. “I don’t want to seem up myself but it’s mainly things that I do already have a good understanding of.” That is very clear. As well as school, and school orchestra (violin), she is a Labour party of Northern Ireland youth activist.
At the end of her Question Time speech she called for a general election. Is that still what she wants? “There’s obviously the danger of being so close to Brexit now, and I am quite worried that it will become another Brexit election, and we will end up with the Tories again, but I think Boris Johnson’s recent moves have been an electoral disaster. I do not think he’s going to get back in. So honestly part of me really wants an election because we probably would get an extension to do it and I think another government would get in even if Labour needs to be propped up for a while.”
After college, she hopes to go to university – Oxford is the aim, otherwise Edinburgh or UCL – to study French and Russian, and then eventually go into politics. There were people saying she should be prime minister after Question Time; what did she make of that? “I’m not saying right now, but maybe in the future like, if the opportunity comes up I’m willing to take it.” #VoteMimi
Kirsty Archer, evicted renter: ‘It shows people can actually change things’
When Kirsty Archer complained to her landlord about the state of disrepair of the London flat she rented, she was served with an eviction order. Then, following the announcement that the government was going to scrap these section 21 eviction notices – which enable landlords to evict tenants for no reason at all, so long as they give them two months’ notice – she agreed to be interviewed on Sky News. It did not quite go as expected.
“I thought if you are a case study you would have the chance to talk about what happened to you,” she says. “But it didn’t really go like that. She was quite critical of me; it emerged during the interview that she had been a landlord herself. I was quite surprised about the line of questioning.”
She is the Sky journalist – and landlord – Jayne Secker. “That’s just the housing market isn’t it?” Secker said to Archer, on air, about the extortionate rents in London. And she went on to have a moan about some of her own experiences renting out properties to young people who don’t know how to do anything around the house and can’t even change a lightbulb. It had gone from a piece about scrapping section 21 to the woes of being a property owner, and Archer came away thinking it had gone really badly. “She said at the end that I swore, and apologised for me swearing.” (Archer had used the term “pissed off”.)
Archer’s flatmate – and fellow evictee – did not think it had gone so badly for her, and did the sensible thing in the situation: he uploaded the clip to Twitter. Two days later – after retweets from, among others, Owen Jones, Philip Pullman and Ellie Goulding – it had garnered 4m views. The story then not only returned to being one about renters’ rights, but now it also became one about patronising journalists who are wildly out of touch with the living situations of the nation’s young people, and woefully ignorant of the renting crisis. Secker ended up apologising, saying that she “got the tone and content of an interview wrong” and had “taken the many comments on board”.
“Obviously it resonated with a lot of people,” Archer says. “I think one of the nicest things was all the comments from random people online saying well done and it’s so good you are speaking out for us.”
Archer works for the charity Rethink Mental Illness and knows a thing or two about the link between housing and mental health. She is one of the lucky ones; she got a platform. Since – and as a result of – her TV appearance she has been to the annual OECD forum in Paris, sat on panels, spoken in schools. “I think it shows that if people take action and are willing to do something rather than just letting it happen, then they can actually change things and help maybe more than just themselves.”
The renting situation is still rubbish. The ban on letting fees is positive, likewise scrapping section 21s, although that hasn’t come into effect yet, and who knows when it will, with everything else going on. Archer is renting a new place in Streatham, south London, £675 a month plus bills. The washing machine broke, but it got fixed. “The landlord is a lot more reasonable this time.”