Next week, the Tories will face their first big electoral test since failing to deliver Brexit on time. On Thursday, the local elections take place – with 9,000 seats up for grabs. While the focus in recent weeks has been on the European elections next month – which will see Nigel Farage’s Brexit party and the pro-EU Change UK field candidates – these votes ought to give a hint of how deep the hole the Tories find themselves in really is.
With Labour consistently leading in recent polls, the Tories are predicted to lose seats next week. However, owing to the timing of the election, there wasn’t time for the Brexit Party to field candidates. There are some Conservative MPs who are cautiously optimistic that this means it won’t be as bad as everyone expects because there’s limited option for a protest vote. There’s also a strand of thinking that says the European elections could give local candidates cover – as voters may choose to vote for their local council and then use the European elections to protest the party’s Brexit stance.
The reaction, however, on the doorstep has been enough to worry a lot of Tories and make them look again at who is best suited to be the next leader. Activists report a change of mood when out canvassing. Several say that the number one issue on the doorstep is not why Brexit hasn’t happened yet but why Theresa May is still in place. The Prime Minister is frequently cited as the person to blame for the whole shambles. There’s a sense that only a Brexiteer leader can fix this. It’s not just voters who are proving hard to convince. Conservative MPs are finding it increasingly difficult to rally activists to go out door knocking.
While most voters don’t have an alternative Brexit party to vote for next week, they do have the option to sit at home rather than go out and vote. This alone would be enough to help Labour make gains. Although the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers this week opted not to change the leadership rules to oust May before December, a disappointing local election result combined with a disastrous EU election could be enough to prompt Conservatives to look again at the Prime Minister’s future.