Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray has made himself an unlikely television star, with his photobombing antics on news reports outside the Houses of Parliament. TIM WALKER went to watch him at work, and hear about how the mood in the area is darkening
It is barely 8am on a bitingly-cold morning at the mini media village which has set up camp on College Green opposite the Palace of Westminster, and the Brexit Circus is already open for business. Most of the star turns are performing: Jacob Rees-Mogg in a Dickensian top coat; Labour’s John McDonnell, surprisingly diminutive and doddery up close; my charming New European colleague Andrew Adonis, stopping by to share a joke; and the ever-immaculate Gina Miller, waiting patiently to appear on a radio show.
Steve Bray – the one full-timer among them, working 8am to 8pm most days now, rain or shine, sometimes even longer – is already hard at work.
He is deftly positioning a placard on a very long pole – bearing the words ‘We Want a People’s Vote’ – directly behind Rees-Mogg’s head as he addresses the BBC cameras on a towering wooden platform that was specifically erected to frustrate the efforts of the man becoming known as Britain’s most prominent protester.
Bray takes an obvious pride in his work – he naturally couldn’t talk to me until Rees-Mogg was off-air – and he knows how to play the game with the camera crews and the presenters to keep in sync with them, as they swiftly change their positions. It is like watching an immensely complicated dance routine. He takes special satisfaction in particular acts of placard-manoeuvring and shows me his favourite screen grabs – occasions where he has got his message onto the television screens – with obvious delight.
Bray in person is an engaging 49-year-old Welshman who is on good terms now with a number of the technicians and journalists operating outside the Houses of Parliament, like the BBC’s amiable Simon McCoy, and he can even engage in cheerful banter with a lot of the Brextremist MPs.
He is sporting a blue top hat emblazoned with the words ‘Stop Brexit’ when we meet and his associate Barbara Want is carrying a huge Union Jack.
‘There is really something very British and eccentric about it all – the way people you would imagine would hate each other can largely take their turns to go before the cameras in a civilised, good-humoured way,’ he says. ‘I’ve been doing this continuously since September last year and most of the time I would say there has been a real camaraderie.
‘I told McCoy, for instance, that I would do a banner saying he’s my favourite BBC presenter and every time he sees me now he asks me where it is. There have been occasions I have even managed to have a laugh with Rees-Mogg, to be honest. The problem is, just lately, things have started to change and it’s very worrying.’
There were angry cries of ‘gas her’ as Gina Miller talked to the BBC’s Huw Edwards the other day – it visibly shocked both the campaigner and the anchorman – and Bray saw, too, the Guardian journalist Owen Jones being pursued along the road by an ugly mob shouting homophobic abuse and accusing him of treachery. He also witnessed a Remain campaigner with Parkinson’s disease pushed against a barrier and hurt.
Bray himself has not been immune. ‘It’s getting very personal now. There was a guy with a placard with the words ‘who is funding Steve the drunk?’ on it, which anyone will tell you who knows me will say is just so unfair on every level. I had a small business and I could be making money, but protesting against Brexit seems to me to be the number one priority now. I might add I like the idea that I am a drunkard as I can’t honestly see how I could be with the sort of hours I am putting in.’
As a matter of fact, Bray was a rare coins dealer before all this happened, but he closed the business and sold most of the stock to fund himself. He is divorced, with a daughter and grandson, and lives frugally in a London flat lent to him by a Remainer. The SODEM Brexit protest group – which he founded – raises money to help him with the costs of living away from home, and occasionally passers-by stop to give him cash. He was particularly touched when a white van drew up and the two guys in it gave him a £50 note just to help continue doing what he does.
‘The people who are doing this are a really nasty bunch – supporters of the English Defence League, the hard right of UKIP and so on – and they’ve only started pitching up here over the past few weeks and turned out in force a few times,’ he says.
‘It’s changing the atmosphere and there are people who are starting to feel frightened. To their great credit, guys I know from Leave Means Leave are as disgusted by this mob as I am. All of us who have been here for a while agree that the tactics they are using are totally unacceptable.
‘They like to threaten and physically intimidate and use abusive words and talk about treachery, but to me the right to protest is one of the most fundamental, defining things we have in this country and the fact they are trying to threaten Mrs Miller and frighten us all away, just shows how little they understand this country.’
There is fencing around College Green, but it is easy to climb over and never once when I have gone has there been a police officer at the official entrance to ask the purpose of my visit or to even attempt to search me. Bray has had some run-ins with the police, but says, generally speaking, they appear to want to keep as low a profile as possible.
‘They escorted me away the other day because one of the broadcasters had complained about me, but it’s always a temporary thing, a short conversation, and then I am back. The other day a cameraman tried to allege that I had, by holding up a banner behind a guy they were interviewing, inflicted ‘criminal damage’ upon his film, but it was clearly just a try-on and it went nowhere.
‘Most of the time it has actually only been Remainers here protesting, so there has never been any real friction, but this lot we are seeing now – they are good at using the internet to get a crowd together – make me think the police should be more assertive and aware there could be trouble.’
Bray is adamant, however, that he is not going to be intimidated and assures me the one thing that can be said for sure about Brexit is the continued presence of his banners on the news bulletins.
‘I do think that we are winning and the ugly scenes we have been seeing here just lately shows how desperate our most extreme opponents are now becoming. I think we all get that there is a principle at stake and no one has been scared away. I really admire Gina Miller in particular for the way she came back after what she had to go through – it was the fact she’s a lady that made it so disgusting. These people as I say know absolutely nothing about what Britain is about.’
For all that, Bray is optimistic and there is no doubt at all in his mind that Brexit can and will be stopped in the year ahead. ‘I am absolutely certain that we will not leave the European Union and that we will come out of this a stronger and more unified country than we were before. All of the most deprived areas I know voted for Brexit because they genuinely thought the people campaigning for it were their friends and that they cared. I think they know now who their real friends are. After this is all over, we must become a lot more compassionate as a society and be willing to listen a lot more.’