'I am giving up on the Conservatives': Boris Johnson faces election gamble as voters desert him over Brexit

Agencies
Voters are questioning Boris Johnson's ability to deliver Brexit on 31 October: AFP/Getty Images

James Bowkett is one of a growing number of Brexit voters who is considering abandoning the Conservative Party in the next election.

The 58-year-old businessman, speaking in Lincoln more than three years after the referendum result, says he is fed up of waiting for the UK to leave the EU.

“I am giving up on the Conservatives,” he said. “There are too many people in that party who don’t want to listen to the public.”

“I am beginning to doubt that Brexit will happen, and I don’t think the Conservatives can deliver it alone.”

Mr Bowkett is just the sort of voter Boris Johnson needs if he is to win an election following parliament’s rejection of a Brexit deal agreed by his predecessor, Theresa May.

The prime minister wants an election to strengthen his mandate for pulling Britain out of the EU after his Conservative government lost its majority over his handling of Brexit. Opponents refuse to endorse an early election unless he rules out leaving the EU without a deal, which could cause a disorderly Brexit, but a snap poll is likely sooner or later.

It is a risky move. If Johnson fails to carry out a pledge to leave the EU on Oct. 31, frustrated Brexit supporters like Bowkett could be driven into the arms of the Brexit Party founded this year by eurosceptic Nigel Farage, polls show.

Johnson could lose power, the main opposition Labour Party could enter government and Brexit might never happen.

Even if Johnson can persuade the EU to accept a revision of the deal reached by Theresa May, it is unlikely to be enough to appease voters like Bowkett.

“If that happens, all this fighting will have been pointless,” Bowkett said. “We will be the laughing stock of the world.”

To win a majority in a general election, Johnson will be banking on winning in places such as Lincoln, a cathedral city that was an important settlement in Roman times and lies 120 miles (193 km) north of London.

The constituency, narrowly held by Labour, has been a bellwether of national trends in all but one election since 1979.

It voted 57 per cent in favour of quitting the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum – compared to the nationwide margin of 52-48 – and the Brexit Party finished top in local voting in European elections in May, as it did in the national vote.

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The Brexit Party has proposed a non-aggression pact with the Conservatives to avoid diluting support for leaving the EU. But so far Mr Johnson, who also risks losing votes to Labour and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, has rejected its overtures.

Brexit supporters’ frustration is evident in the streets beneath Lincoln’s Norman castle. Many said they wanted to exit the EU so that some of the large sums Britain pays into the bloc’s coffers can be reinvested in their community.

They say there are few good jobs, the transport system is underfunded and that immigration is putting extra pressure on local services. Such is the perceived number of arrivals from eastern Europe that residents refer to the road Portland Street as Poland Street.

John Roland, a retired engineer, plans to back the Brexit Party. “I feel like we need some fresh blood,” he said.

While Nigel Farage’s party is trailing well behind the Conservatives and Labour in opinion polls, one survey found that support would double from nine percent to 18 percent if Britain had not left the EU by 31 October.

The poll commissioned by Represent Us - which is pushing for a second Brexit referendum – found the Conservatives’ lead over Labour would evaporate in these circumstances.

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John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said a decisive factor in the election would be whether eurosceptic voters have more confidence in Johnson or Farage over Brexit.

“That could be the crucial debate on which any election might well turn,” he said.

Karl McCartney, the Conservative candidate for Lincoln and the local member of parliament between 2010 and 2017, acknowledged the threat from the Brexit Party.

“We know if we do not leave... the Brexit Party is the main danger, not the Labour Party,” he said.

Farage, who has spoken at two rallies in Lincoln in the last five months, sees few options for Johnson and has proposed Conservative and Brexit Party candidates do not run against each other in more than 80 of the 650 parliamentary constituencies.

“I very much hope that Boris Johnson will simply look at the numbers,” Mr Farage said. “If we stand against them, they cannot win a majority.”

Reuters

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