EU referendum: Campaigners battle in David Cameron's Witney constituency

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David Cameron at a Remain campaign event in his Witney constituencyImage source, PA
Image caption,
David Cameron has appeared at Remain campaign events in his Witney constituency

David Cameron has left behind his Euro-questioning beginnings as a new Conservative MP to embrace the EU as a statesman. But what about his constituency? In the heart of rural Oxfordshire - and the Tory heartland - will his voters be backing Brexit or choosing to Remain?

Liam Walker admits the Witney Conservatives are split. The Vote Remain campaigner says the local party doesn't have an official stance on the referendum.

"There are very few of us that support remaining... I never thought I'd be campaigning alongside the Green Party and Labour, but on this we're united.

"It does seem Vote Leave are throwing the kitchen sink at Witney. For us it's about having conversations with local people."

Witney is as safe as a Tory seat can get in modern-day Britain. Douglas Hurd was its MP for 13 years, and David Cameron has been the incumbent since 2001.

But while woollen blankets were manufactured in the town for hundreds of years, and a tall solitary chimney still stands to remind residents of that proud past, Witney has also embraced the 21st century.

It had a facelift in 2009 that brought High Street middle-class staples such as Whittards, Marks and Spencer and White Stuff, as well as high-end boutiques, gastro-pubs, coffee shops, tasteful tea rooms and lately a sushi restaurant.

The question is what's next on the horizon? Will Witney vote to stay - or go?

Image source, Vote Leave Witney
Image caption,
The Vote Leave stall in Witney has proved a popular gathering place
Image source, Witney Labour
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Vote Remain has seen Labour and Conservatives team up in west Oxfordshire

"A lot of the fields are voting to leave," jokes "Remainer" Chris Johnson, referring to the number of signs on land surrounding the town.

As chairman of Witney's Labour party he's been involved with the Britain Stronger In Europe campaign.

"We're getting more of our own posters out so I hope in future you'll see a more balanced picture, but I'm sure Vote Leave are making a particular point in west Oxfordshire."

But Dave Barnby doesn't agree - he argues the prime minister is out of step with the people who voted him in.

A former Conservative town councillor - who briefly joined UKIP but now describes himself as "apolitical" - he recalls when Mr Cameron visited him for tea as prospective parliamentary candidate in 2000.

"He came to our house. My wife made him cream tea. I said 'this is the guy we need'," says Mr Barnby.

"He told me we shouldn't transfer any more powers from Westminster to Brussels.

"So on a personal level I find it rather a contrast between then and now, and I just can't understand it."

Happily, the two sides of the EU argument regularly set up their stalls side by side in the town centre on Saturdays, and the mood is sporting.

Mr Barnby describes it as "fairly friendly banter between us, although this is a serious business looking to the future of how the people of the country want to be governed".

"So there's a bit of tension but there's also a good feeling and chat."

Image caption,
Huge banners are ubiquitous around the town
Image caption,
Kevin Rose believes voters in Witney have deserted the PM on the issue of the EU

Kevin Rose, a shop owner who proudly wears a Vote Leave badge and supports UKIP, often watches the two tables do battle on weekends.

"The Leave people are really passionate about leaving while the In people don't seem so vocal," he says.

However, things haven't been completely trouble free. A series of Vote Leave signs have been torn down or defaced.

"Witney is a pretty civilised place on the edge of the Cotswolds and you wouldn't expect it here, so I'm totally mystified as to why it's happening," Mr Barnby says.

"I don't need to say that we in the Labour Party neither encourage nor condone such actions," Mr Johnson responds, before adding: "We occasionally suffer similar attacks - but we don't have such big posters."

Image source, Vote Leave Witney
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Some Vote Leave banners have been torn down from sites around the town
Image caption,
Vote Leave signs have been seemingly targeted by dissenters

Ellen Hardy took what she feels is more positive action when she moved to the area and saw all the Vote Leave sloganeering.

"I thought if you're going to say it in the Cotswolds, you better say it with bunting," she explains at her front door, which is decorated in European flags.

"We did say when we put it up that maybe we'd get bricks through the front window, but I think Witney's a nice place.

"I've seen the Leave and Remain camps handing out leaflets in town and the Leave people do seem to be louder, better organised and better funded."

Image source, Vote Leave Witney
Image caption,
One of the town's hotels has chosen its side in the referendum
Image caption,
The Flag of Europe adorns one door, showing solidarity with the EU

Mr Johnson still thinks things are evenly split.

"It's not always entirely comfortable agreeing with David Cameron but when we have a common concern it makes sense to work alongside each other.

"We're on street stalls together with the Conservatives, giving the same message, probably with a slightly different emphasis, but we're broadly speaking on similar lines with our Conservative colleagues."

Image source, Liam Walker
Image caption,
The Conservatives are split on the issue but have a keen Vote Remain contingent
Image caption,
Elijah Taylor says most residents keep their opinions to themselves

As far as 22-year-old undecided voter Elijah Taylor is concerned, the signs don't necessarily represent the views of residents.

"Most people in Witney keep to themselves, but the people with the signs like to have their opinions heard."

"It's unlikely that signage from either side is going to change anybody's minds," Ms Hardy admits.

"It's just about making a stand."

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