Derbyshire Tories boycott EU elections as Farage's party poses threat

Lisa Dowd, Midlands correspondent

Conservative councillors in Derbyshire have voted to go on "strike" and not help candidates campaign in the upcoming European elections, in an extraordinary show of local defiance to the national party.

It comes as a survey of 781 Conservative councillors for the Mail on Sunday shows that 40% of them are prepared to vote for Nigel Farage's Brexit Party at the elections on 23 May.

Every one of the 37 Tory councillors at Derbyshire County Council are in support of the boycott, meaning that hundreds of activists will not deliver leaflets or canvass for the party's candidates in the run up to the elections.

Council leader Barry Lewis: "I suppose it is described in one way as going on strike, to not take part in a campaign for an election like this.

"It is with a heavy heart - we are an activist group at Derbyshire County Council, we want to support our candidates - but we simply cannot go against the wishes of the people.

"What we're hearing on the doorstep is... why haven't we got Brexit over the line?"

Mr Lewis, who has been involved in the party since he was 14, said he had written to Conservative Party headquarters about their stance but had not had a response.

He added: "We have fantastic, hard-working Conservative MEPs in Derbyshire but this was about not delivering that democratic mandate, that Leave vote on the 29 March this year.

"We felt we should have been out of the EU by now and that the prime minister and the government should have moved mountains to make that so.

"I think there's a groundswell among activists across the country who feel very much like we do."

The Survation survey for the Mail on Sunday found that 40% of Theresa May's councillors would vote for Mr Farage's Brexit Party, a figure that would fall to 22% if Boris Johnson was in Number 10.

It also showed that three quarters wanted Mrs May to resign, with 43% of them calling for her to quit immediately, and there was almost complete agreement that the Brexit deadlock had damaged the party.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Mr Farage said that "millions of natural Tory voters have said emphatically that they will never vote Conservative again. And my strong sense is that they mean it".

He added: "Far from being seen as the party to solve the EU question, the Tories are now actively regarded by a growing number of people as being a major part of the problem.

"Under Theresa May's stewardship, there has been near-anarchy on the Tory benches in Parliament for the past couple of years, as MPs have deliberately gone against the party's manifesto and done everything they can to thwart the referendum result."

Meanwhile, shadow deputy leader Tom Watson said the Labour Party must back a second Brexit referendum in order to respond to the electoral challenge posed by Mr Farage.

Writing in the Observer, he said the party could not "sit on the fence" on the biggest issue facing the country, in comments which appear aimed at putting pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to make a second referendum a red line issue in Brexit talks with Mrs May.

A "confirmatory" referendum on any deal was "the very least" that voters should expect, Mr Watson said.

Earlier this month, Mrs May agreed a delay to Brexit until Halloween after EU leaders offered another extension to Article 50.

She acknowledged the "huge frustration from many people" that she had to ask for another delay, which followed three defeats in parliament for her withdrawal agreement.

In a sign of the pressure on Mrs May, the Sunday Times reported that she will be told within days that she must step down by the end of June or face a fresh effort by MPs to oust her.

The newspaper reported that Sir Graham Brady, chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, will tell her that 70% of Tory MPs now want her to resign.