They had one job….Amidst the fury in the Conservative Party at Theresa May's overt betrayal of the Brexit vote, Wayne Fitzgerald, deputy leader of Peterborough council, told the Telegraph of a large number of constituents 'who will not vote for any Labour politician, Conservative politician, anybody other than an anti-EU party'. This is an area that voted 61% for Brexit, and it is also the parliamentary seat of disgraced ex-Labour MP Fiona Onasanya, now sitting as an independent and casting votes against Brexit in the House of Commons, when by rights she should still be in prison.
Fearing carnage in the local elections on 2nd May, some Tory figures such as Dan Hannan are urging members to stay and for voters to prevent the hard-left Labour of Jeremy Corbyn wresting power. But these appeals are falling on deaf ears. The Leave majority in the general public is more interested in securing Brexit than the future of the tarnished Conservative Party. They may admire stalwarts such as Mark Francois and Bill Cash for making a principled stand against May's Brexit-in-name-only, but they know that this is a marginalised group in parliament.
Last week Boris Johnson, the leading Tory campaigner for Leave, sided with the treacherous Dominic Grieve against his Beaconsfield constituency party, whose members voted to deselect him on the very day that we were supposed to be leaving the EU. For Grieve, Brexit is an act of stupidity, rejecting the majority both in the country and his constituency for liberty from the Brussels regime. He has plotted with EU commissioners behind Theresa May's back, yet Boris supported him over hard-working local volunteers.
Party loyalties are collapsing. In the last general election the Conservative and Labour vote combined was 83%, but in current opinion polls this total is twenty points lower. The local elections around England and Wales are a major opportunity for UKIP, which scored 9% in the latest ComRes poll. The party is fielding a full slate of candidates in Peterborough, including Darrell Goodliffe, political editor of the Politicalite news website. I asked Darrell about the prospects.
NM – Darrell, what are you hearing on the doorsteps?
DG – I am hearing a lot of anger directed towards the Conservatives. Just the other day while leafleting one gentleman popped his head out of the door to say that if my leaflet was from the Conservatives then it would be tossed straight in the bin. However, people are also tired and in the words of one woman 'overwhelmed' by the situation and this is leading to people switching off from politics entirely. When this mood crystallises I think it will be reflected in both a mass protest vote and a mass stayaway from the polls.
NM – A YouGov poll last week had UKIP on 7% and Nigel Farage's Brexit Party on 5%, with a significant decline in support for the two major parties. The Brexit Party is getting lots of publicity, and will probably do well if the EU elections happen. But it is not participating in the local elections. So is this the best chance UKIP will get?
DG – The last poll I saw for Euro elections had UKIP on 18%, so no, I don't think the local elections are UKIP's best chance. If Nigel is planning in the long term to stand the Brexit Party in contests for seats in Westminster then he has made a massive tactical blunder ignoring the local elections, I am firmly of the opinion that the bedrock for building a Parliamentary challenge is a solid base of councillors. The Brexit Party has the advantage of being the new kid on the block, but UKIP is the tried-and-tested brand name when it comes to appealing to Eurosceptic voters, and I think that will win out.
NM – Gerard Batten is a popular leader in the UKIP ranks, but his forthright views on Islam have made it easier for the mainstream media and political opponents to vilify the party as 'far right'. Farage has been using the charge of extremism to distance his Brexit Party from UKIP. Do you get challenged on this aspect of party policy?
DG – I have had only one conversation about Islam and Tommy Robinson; that was with a lovely gentleman who I ended up spending about half an hour with. He felt Tommy wasn't for him but understood the concerns about Islam. Like many people, he believed Tommy is a member of UKIP, which he isn't. I have a great belief in the rationality and common sense of the average voter: most are willing to have sensible conversations about things and not get into howling, screeching and name-calling when you approach them on a one-to-one level. That engagement is something I love about this level of politics - the real engagement with people outside of the political bubble.
NM – Peterborough has a large Muslim population, with two imposing mosques visible from the passing mainline railway. What would you say to a Muslim voter who is keen on Brexit but deterred by what he has heard of UKIP? He or she might vote Labour regardless of that party's Brexit obfuscations.
DG – I would say, firstly, don't believe everything in the mainstream media. Then I would say that I and I believe UKIP as well have no problem with you as a person. Yes, we critique Islam which is not a race and never has been, but a body of ideas which like any other body of ideas in a democratic society should be subject to scrutiny and critique. The freedom to do so is the very lifeblood of our democratic society. I am a baptised and confirmed Christian and see my faith roundly mocked and totally deconstructed on a regular basis, so I can understand how criticism of Islam would make a Muslim feel uncomfortable. But that must be allowed to happen freely for our democracy to function. No faith or body of ideas has the right to insist in a free and secular society it is beyond reproach. I would then urge them to look at the bigger picture not just with regards to Brexit but with regards to the potentially cataclysmic financial position of the city council, which is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, and urge them to cast their vote accordingly.
NM - Do you find any clear demographic patterns in support for UKIP? Do you fare best on council estates and less well on leafy avenues?
DG – I am finding no bias one way or another to be honest. West Ward is a solid Conservative ward, but not only have voters in this ward been let down over Brexit, but the mismanagement of Peterborough City Council's finances is a scandal. Voters back the Conservatives for sound financial management, not casino capitalist loans to companies whose prospects look limited to say the least. Solar energy as an industry has been circling the drain since the government grants that supported it were axed, yet the brain trust at PCC thought a £23 million loan to Empower Community Management LLP, which fits solar panels to the roofs of houses, was a brilliant idea. The repayment is 18 months overdue and now the talk is of refinancing; all the while taxes are on the rise and community assets are being let go in a mad fire sale. Bankruptcy is the only way this can end.
NM – Finally, would a strong UKIP showing in the council elections have any impact on Westminster's Brexit bungling?
DG - I think it will focus some minds and make the threat of UKIP real again. Many, like my opponent Wayne Fitzgerald, had totally written us off, but the local elections will show we are back and once again a credible electoral force.
NM – Thank you, Darrell.
The battle lines are drawn on the west side of this cathedral city. Although these are elections for local authorities, Brexit looms large. The Tories are set to reap the whirlwind of their incredible failure to implement a clear instruction from the electorate.
Here are the results from Peterborough. Conservative: 31% (down 6); Labour: 28% (down 1); LibDem: 16% (up 13); Green: 11% (up 4); UKIP: 8% (down 7).
So indeed a bad night for the Tories, who lost the council to no overall control. Labour also down as voters switched to LibDems and Green. Disappointing result for UKIP, who did better in the north than in the south.