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Analysis

Tories face European Parliament election nightmare

by Nick Kent | 12.04.2019

The Tories face a nightmare fighting the European Parliament elections. Bitterly divided, their vote could be squeezed between pro and anti-Brexit parties. This may represent an opportunity for pro-Europeans.

There is a high chance that the UK will hold European Parliamentary elections on 23 May, a contest for which all the parties are under-prepared and whose results could be particularly disastrous for the Conservatives.  

Tories are divided over who their candidates should be and what platform they should stand on. Do they back May’s deal? What sort of long-term relationship do they want with the EU?  They will have to answer these sorts of questions in the campaign.

Early polling is confusing because of its volatility, uncertainties as to how the new parties (the Brexit Party and Change UK) will fare and the tendency for low turnouts in European elections.  

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But the trend for the Tories does not look good.  In the four opinion polls this year asking how people would vote in the EP elections, the Tory share has fallen from a high of 36% in January to a low of 23% this week.  

In the most recent poll, by Hanbury for Open Europe, voters were also asked about the new parties.  This put Labour way out in front at over 38%, the Tories trailing badly in second at 23% and the new Brexit Party taking third place at 10%. Change UK was at just over 4% behind the Lib Dems and UKIP.

Polling at this stage is open to question because no campaigns have been launched and the new parties haven’t established themselves in the minds of voters yet. But the Hanbury poll suggests a serious squeezing of the Tory vote, as it loses Leave backers to the Farage-led Brexit Party and Remain-voting Tories to Change UK or the Lib Dems. With even some Tory MPs unwilling to commit to voting for the party, the stage is set for a nightmare contest.

But pro-Europeans wanting to capitalise on this situation should beware. First, the Tories did very badly in the last EP elections – third behind UKIP and Labour on 23%, so there isn’t much further they can fall. Second, much will depend on Labour’s platform as all polls have them out in front at the moment. Will they, finally, commit to a referendum, as the ITV’s Robert Peston suggests?  Third, pro-European forces are scattered between the parties, with some Tories still wanting to back pro-EU Tory MEPs (such as Sajid Karim in North West England and Charles Tannock in London), as well Labour, Lib Dems, the Greens and Change UK.  

The situation will be even more complicated in Scotland and Wales because of nationalist parties. And finally, turnout will be important. Here there is good news in that recent polling indicates a significantly higher intention to vote amongst Remain voters compared to Leave voters.

With Nigel Farage itching for the fight, Change UK optimistic about their chances and Labour poised to capitalise on Tory divisions, these elections could be painful indeed for Conservatives. But pro-European forces are divided between parties and don’t necessarily command the media’s attention the way the two main parties can. Much will depend on whether Remain voters turn out and vote. We know what happens when they don’t.

Edited by Hugo Dixon