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Tory hierarchy braced for voter backlash in local and EU polls

The party’s difficulties over Brexit could translate into electoral maulings in the two contests in May.

Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis arrives in Downing Street, London, for a cabinet meeting.
Conservative Party Chairman Brandon Lewis arrives in Downing Street, London, for a cabinet meeting.

Tory chairman Brandon Lewis acknowledged “huge frustration” among grassroots members and activists as he pleaded with them to back the Conservatives rather than Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.

The Conservatives are braced for a backlash from voters at Thursday’s local elections and face the prospect of coming a distant third in European contests later this month behind Labour and Mr Farage’s outfit.

Tory deputy chairwoman Helen Whately admitted the local elections “are going to be a difficult night for us” after predictions her party could lose a thousand councillors amid anger over Brexit.

Elections will take place at 248 councils in England and Ms Whately admitted the contests in England were a chance to “kick the Government” and said she had seen “more anger than before” on the doorstep.

Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday, she said: “I think there’s no doubt that it’s going to be a difficult night for us.”

She said it was down to the fact the seats which are up for grabs this time round were last contested in 2015, the “high point” for her party.

But when the presenter suggested the dire electoral predictions were actually due to frustration with the Brexit deadlock, she said she had experienced that from voters on the doorstep, adding: “What I say to them is yes I realise that, I realise how frustrated you are with Parliament, actually I’m frustrated too as an MP.

“But these are the local elections, so this is about who you are electing to be your local councillor, who you want to provide your local services.”

Ms Whateley rejected claims that Theresa May is a “problem” for the Tories, saying: “Actually on the contrary I’d say more often what I’ve heard on the doorstep is people saying ‘wow it must be really tough for the Prime Minister’ and praising her for her resilience and her sticking at it and trying to get through, to bring MPs together and on Brexit. That’s what I hear far more often than criticism.”

Ms Whately also said she was “not sure it would be helpful” for Mrs May to be more clear in setting out a timetable for her leaving office, saying: “Talking too much about leadership and the dates is a distraction.”

The Sunday Express reported that the Conservatives were braced for 1,000 seats to be lost in the local contests, while opinion polls have suggested the Tories are some distance behind Labour and the Brexit Party in the European race.

Asked when the Tories would launch a campaign for the European elections, Mr Lewis said the focus was on Thursday’s local contests – and on getting a Brexit deal through Parliament which would allow the UK to avoid the May 23 vote.

Mr Lewis told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show: “Our first priority is to not have to fight the European elections. I think we should be looking to do everything we can to respect that 2016 referendum.

“If and when we are at the point where we know we are definitely fighting those European elections then we will take some decisions about that.”

He played down reports about donors deserting the party, insisting that 2018 had been a “record peacetime fundraising year”.

But he added: “I don’t deny the frustration people in our party have over where we are on Brexit. I share that frustration, I want to get this done so we don’t fight those European elections.”

Polls have suggested that Tory members – and even elected councillors – will back the Brexit Party on May 23.

Mr Lewis said: “I fully appreciate the huge frustration that particularly our members and councillors have, that we haven’t left the EU yet and we might have to fight these elections at all. But if we do, I hope they’ll vote Conservative.”

Derbyshire’s Tory councillors have already said they will not campaign for Conservative candidates in the contest, but Mr Lewis said he hoped his party would unite behind its would-be MEPs.

“I hope that Conservative members, colleagues, volunteers, activists will come to want to not just vote for, but campaign for Conservatives to get elected, because ultimately Conservative representation is better than any other party,” he said.

A YouGov study for Hope Not Hate put the Tories on just 13% for the European contest, behind the Brexit Party on 28% and Labour on 22%.

The Tories were just three points ahead of the Greens and Change UK on 10%, with the Liberal Democrats on 7% and Ukip on 5% in the poll of 5,412 British adults conducted between April 23 and 26.

Although Ms Whately and Mr Lewis rejected suggestions that Mrs May should set a date for her departure, the battle between potential successors continued.

Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss burnished her free market credentials by condemning a “worrying outbreak of neo-puritanism”.

The Sunday Telegraph reported an essay written by Ms Truss for the Freer think tank in which she attacks the “nannying tendency” of the state.

“The assumption is that society is a machine where levers can be pulled, the handle can be cranked, and better results will ensue. So, there are calls to regulate or ban foods too high in sugar or fat, to reduce obesity. But people aren’t machines – they are agents of their own destiny.

“There’s been a worrying outbreak of neo-puritanism, which I fear is in danger of holding us back.”

Justice minister Rory Stewart, another potential leadership contender, said “the only hope for our party surviving is for us to be a very broad church” which could include moderates and hardline Brexiteers.

On BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar’s Politics, Mr Stewart said he would not serve under a leader who wanted a no-deal Brexit, warning about the danger of “polarising, extreme right-wing politics”.

Asked if he could remain in a Tory party led by Boris Johnson, Mr Stewart said: “I would find that difficult if he were campaigning for a no-deal Brexit.”

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