The unfinished business of Brexit compelled me to seek re-election as a Conservative MEP

The unfinished business of Brexit compelled me to seek re-election as a Conservative MEP

So the nominations are in and it looks as if the 2019 European Elections are going ahead.

When the powers-that-be in the Conservative Party contacted me to ask if I wanted to stand as a candidate again, I had a decision to make. There were many factors to take into account. Given the state of the opinion polls, there was the possibility that I might not be re-elected – so I would spend several weeks of my life on a hiding to nothing. On the other hand, I owe a clear duty to those who have campaigned for the Conservative Party in the East Midlands over the 20 years that I have been involved in the region.

But the deciding factor was that Brexit is unfinished business. Having spent the 2016 referendum campaign as Manager of the Better Off Out organisation, you can imagine that I never wanted these elections to take place. It would have been much better if the UK had left the EU on 29th March. But we are where we are. Not standing might look rather like desertion under fire. I’ve been batting for the eurosceptic team since Maastricht. I wasn’t going to back out now.

No sooner was the decision made than the bad news started rolling in. First came a rumour from Derbyshire, then firm confirmation. The group of Conservative councillors on Derbyshire County Council passed a motion not to campaign in the European Elections. Cllr Barry Lewis set out his reasons here.

Meanwhile an opinion poll on likely voting behaviour at the European Elections by YouGov saw the Brexit Party surge to 27% from 15%. The Conservative Party was languishing in third place at 15%. Grim stuff, but then the opinion polls at the same point in the 2014 Euro Elections had not been very different – with UKIP on 38% and Conservatives on 18%, with Labour in second place at 27%. The final votes then saw UKIP fall back to 27% and the Conservatives advance to 23%. Of course, the political landscape in 2019 is very different to that of 2014. Well, we will see.

On the plus side, I found that the selection panel in the East Midlands had provided the Conservative Party with a top class team of candidates. At No.1 position is the redoubtable Emma McClarkin. She has been MEP since 2009 and is a long-term Brexiteer. At No.3 is Tony Harper, a tenacious campaigner who got a 9% swing in his favour in Ashfield at the 2017 General Election and came within a whisker of winning the seat. The No.4 position is occupied by Brendan Clarke -Smith, who did such a fine job in the same spot in 2014. The rear gunner at No.5 is Thomas Randall, another fine campaigner who has more than paid his dues in Nottinghamshire. A cracking team, it cheered me up no end.

Of course, the real action is out on the doorstep. So that is where I went. I visited various district council areas around the East Midlands, supporting Conservative candidates in city, town and village.

It must be said that the reaction from voters in the local elections looked rather patchy. Where there was a live local issue on which our candidate had taken a strong position, the conversations with voters tended to be about that issue. Where these was no such strong local concern, conversations inevitably drifted to national issues. That often meant Brexit, and rarely was the reaction a ringing endorsement of how things were going.

To what extent the national position will impact on how people vote in the local elections remains to be seen. The local elections of 1995 and 1996 were early heralds of the Conservative disaster in the general election of 1997. On the other hand, the local elections of 2009 saw the Conservative vote share drop 6% – no hint there of the coming Conservative gains in 2010. And in 2014 Labour came top, while the Conservatives were to win an overall majority in Westminster the following year. So local election results do not always follow national trends.

Meanwhile, there are more leaflets to be delivered, more doors to be knocked on and more voters to speak to. KBO, as Churchill would have said.