Conservatives and Labour are gearing up for elections to the European Parliament on May 23, with both of Britain’s main political parties approaching the poll with trepidation.
Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party and the recently formed Independent Group of former Labour and Tory MPs see the elections as a big opportunity to secure seats in the European Parliament.
But the Tories and Labour — who are busy drawing up manifestos and finalising their lists of candidates — fear a revolt against the political establishment in the poll.
Tories are the most concerned, with senior figures predicting the party could suffer an electoral meltdown as voters protest against Theresa May and the failure to deliver Brexit because of MPs’ rejection of her withdrawal agreement.
Conservative politicians in Westminster and Brussels believe that if she is still prime minister by the time of the poll, the party will lose most of its 18 existing MEPs.
“It’s not the Brexit deal that is the problem — it’s her,” said one would-be Tory candidate for the European elections. “If the prime minister is still in place, we’ll go below 10 per cent [of the vote] and might end up with just four MEPs.”
Some Tory figures are concerned that the party lacks the resources or will to mount a strong campaign.
The best hope for the Conservatives is that Mrs May defies expectations and manages to get her Brexit deal approved by MPs by May 22. That should enable the UK to leave the EU and avoid participation in the European elections.
Two recent opinion polls suggested the Conservatives are losing ground to the Brexit party ahead of the elections, in which the UK is due to choose 73 MEPs.
YouGov put the Tories on 16 per cent of the vote in the elections, compared to 15 per cent for the Brexit party and 24 per cent for Labour. Opinium put the Conservatives on 17 per cent, the Brexit party on 12 per cent, and Labour on 29 per cent.
Jeremy Hunt, foreign secretary, on Monday agreed with suggestions that the European elections could be disastrous for the Tories.
“I think the absolute priority for Theresa May is to get Brexit over the line before the 23rd of May so that we don’t end up fighting the European Parliament elections,” he told the BBC.
Despite the Tories’ fears about the elections, the party is planning to field a full slate of candidates. Only three of the party’s 18 MEPs are not expected to stand again.
Stanley Johnson, a former Conservative MEP who is the father of ex-foreign secretary Boris Johnson, has applied to be a Tory candidate in the poll on a platform of persuading allies in the European Parliament to push for changes to the contentious Irish backstop in Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement. Eurosceptic Tory MPs claim the backstop would lock the UK into close ties with the EU in perpetuity.
“Conservative MEPs need to seek alliances with a view to persuading the European Commission to reopen discussions on the withdrawal agreement,” said Stanley Johnson.
Meanwhile, Labour intends to spend close to £1m on the European elections and is also planning to field a full slate of candidates. Of Labour’s existing 20 MEPs, 15 are due to stand again, according to party insiders, with selections taking place in recent days for other candidates.
Although Labour is in a stronger position than the Conservatives in opinion polls about the European elections, and will fight on a manifesto promising environmental protections and stronger workers’ rights, the party’s MEPs also want a pledge of a confirmatory referendum on any Brexit deal.
The MEPs fear that without such a promise, Labour could lose support to the Independent Group, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National party, all of which favour a second Brexit referendum.
“If Labour does not reconfirm its support for a confirmatory public vote on any Brexit deal in its manifesto then it will haemorrhage votes to parties who do have a clear message,” said Richard Corbett, leader of Labour in the European Parliament.
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, has held out the possibility of the party seeking a referendum, without so far making a firm commitment.
Labour officials described the European elections as a “nightmare” in organisational terms because no one knows whether the poll will definitely go ahead.
“We thought we were going to be unemployed about now but we’ve had a stay of execution, we just don’t know for how long,” said one Labour MEP.