Bristol: British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservatives are facing a battering at this month’s European Parliament elections amid the Brexit impasse, presenting their candidates with quite a challenge in the campaign for votes.
With May’s authority hanging by a thread, Brexit postponed, voters fed up and Eurosceptics deserting the party in droves, according to opinion polls, Ashley Fox, who leads the Conservatives in the outgoing European Parliament, concedes that this election campaign is “difficult”.
“I understand why people are angry,” the 49-year-old MEP said, drinking a cup of tea in the Conservative Party offices in Bristol, southwest England.
In June 2016, 52 per cent of voters were in favour of Britain leaving the European Union.
Brexit was originally set to happen on March 29 this year. But MPs could not agree on the divorce deal May struck with Brussels and now the departure date has been set back to October 31.
As a result, Britain must take part in the European Parliament elections, being held in the UK on May 23, to elect MEPs who may take their seats for a few months only.
Protest vote fears
The election “will be difficult for my party because electors are frustrated, and we saw that in the local elections,” said Fox.
In the local authority polls on May 2, both main parties — the Conservatives and the Labour opposition — took a pounding as exasperated voters switched elsewhere.
The Brexit Party, newly formed by Euro-sceptic figurehead Nigel Farage, is leading the opinion polls for the European Parliament elections.
“We would prefer that they wouldn’t be taking place. But we will fight them,” said Fox, as he urged voters not to defect to Farage’s single-issue start-up.
A survey by pollsters Opinium, out Sunday in The Observer newspaper, put the Brexit Party on 34 per cent, Labour on 21 per cent, the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats on 12 per cent and the Conservatives on 11 per cent.
The campaigning enthusiasm shown by Fox is not matched by Conservative headquarters in London.
Perhaps sensing which way the wind is blowing, the centre-right party is yet to hold an official campaign launch, leaving the battle to the footsoldiers.
Standing for re-election in the southwest England constituency, which returns six MEPs, Fox has planned a limited campaign focused on social media rather than doorknocking.
He insists that is not out of fear of meeting the voters, but due to the lack of time between now and polling day for elections he never expected to be standing in.
With less than a fortnight to go until the polls, Stephen Williams, who is standing for the Liberal Democrats, is hoping the centrist party can maintain the impressive resurgence it witnessed in the local elections.
He is out knocking on doors almost every day.
“My main message is: we want to stop Brexit,” Williams told AFP while out campaigning in Redcliffe in the heart of Bristol.
Calling at one opulent house, he is met by a young man who seems startled by the knock and uninterested in the election.
But Williams, 52, is used to the hazards of doorknocking: he has been doing it for 35 years and was the Bristol West member of the British parliament from 2005 to 2015.
The next house offers a more enthusiastic welcome. On the porch, Dan Tyndall, a reverend, willingly shares the candidate’s pro-European outlook.
“I hope for something that gives us a very clear indication as to how we can get ourselves out of this mess,” the cleric said of the elections.
With a thick wad of leaflets, Williams goes tirelessly from door-to-door, and does not encounter a single Brexiteer.
In Bristol, 62 per cent of voters wanted Britain to remain in the EU.
“The Liberal Democrats are the largest pro-remain party,” Williams tells Elizabeth Davies, 57, as her little black dog barks.
Here again, his message falls on receptive ears.
“I have never ever voted Conservative in my entire life and I now can’t vote for the Labour Party because they haven’t come out as an opposition party,” she said.
The two main parties are continuing to negotiate on a possible Brexit compromise, and Labour is pursuing what has been dubbed “constructive ambiguity” on the topic.
Satisfied, Williams presses on with his campaigning, in the hope of securing a seat — and keeping it if Britain does a U-turn on its Brexit decision.