Many angry Brexit voters will wait until 23rd May to punish the Tories, rather than today’s local elections

Many angry Brexit voters will wait until 23rd May to punish the Tories, rather than today’s local elections

“What election is that then?” was a question that I did not really expect to be asked the other morning when I knocked on a door in a Leave-voting rural area, but the middle-aged lady asking it was perfectly genuine.

“The local council election,” I replied holding out a leaflet extolling the virtues of the Conservative candidate.

She looked at the leaflet blankly, then turned back into the house. “Jim! There’s a fellow here talking about an election.”

Jim then appeared from the interior of the house and peered at the leaflet. “Oh, aye,” he said. “Keith. We always vote for Keith.” He then saw my blue rosette. “I’m not voting Conservative though.”

Of course, it was ever thus with local elections. Far more than at general elections [still less European elections], the candidate can make a real difference. So too can a local issue. People will vote for the person or the issue, not for the party. Often the party is immaterial. But in my wanderings around the East Midlands over the past week or so it seems to be far more the case than is usual.

The reason is not hard to find: Brexit.

The East Midlands voted for Brexit and the folks here are not happy that three years after that vote they are about to be asked to elect Members of the European Parliament as if the referendum had never happened. Actually “not happy” is an understatement. A good number of them are downright angry.

Ordinarily, you would expect the local candidates to be punished. No doubt some of them will be – but not as many as I was expecting.

I raised this mismatch with a councillor with whom I went canvassing in Leicestershire a fortnight ago. Back then we had had doors slammed in our faces, I had even been sworn at. How does he say things are now?

“There has been a change on the doorsteps over the past few days,” he said. “I think people have decided what they are going to do. When you were here a fortnight ago, they were just angry that we had not left the EU yet. But they did not know what to do about it. Now they have decided. They are going to vote as usual in the local elections – which is good news for me as I should be OK. But they are going to give the Conservative Party a kicking at the European elections – which is bad news for you.”

He smiled at me wanly. “Do you remember back in 1997? People wanted to kick us back then too. They decided to vote for that nice Mr Blair, who was portraying himself as being almost a Tory. So we lost a vast number of council seats, and MPs. But this time that option is not there. Corbyn is a nightmare and they know it. So they won’t be voting for Corbyn’s local Labour candidate here.”

By contrast, I was in a rather Remain urban area yesterday afternoon. At house after house, nobody mentioned the EU at all. It was as if it were not an issue. Eventually I went off script and instead of talking about the local bus lanes I told the voter that I was an MEP. “Poor you,” came the reply. “You’ll be losing your job soon.” But she wasn’t really interested. Back to bus lanes.

So I don’t think that the local election results are going to be as bad for we Conservatives as some are making out. Four years ago, when these seats were last contested, the Lib Dems took a hammering, so I would expect them to win a few back. And we will lose some to national anger at the non-delivery of Brexit. How many will we lose? Well, I don’t know, but clearly estimates of a thousand losses are over-hyped. Perhaps 500? But making predictions is a mug’s game. Ask Cassandra.