Theresa May has accused EU leaders of preparing to "line up to oppose us" over Brexit, as she made an audacious appeal to Labour supporters to “lend me their vote” to strengthen her hand.
Speaking in the Labour stronghold of Leeds, the Prime Minister urged the party’s faithful to disregard “who you may have voted for in the past” and turn to the Tories in June.
Pointing to the crucial EU withdrawal negotiations to come, Ms May said: “Everyone in our country has a positive reason to lend me their vote.
“Because this election is not about who you may have voted for in the past. It is about voting in the national interest. Voting for the future.”
Strikingly, the Prime Minister toughened her language on the stance of other EU leaders, in response to German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s criticism of UK reluctance to face the reality of Brexit.
“She says the UK has 'illusions' about the process and that the 27 member states of the European Union agree," Ms May said. "We can see how tough those negotiations are going to be at times.
”Yet our opponents are already seeking to disrupt those negotiations – at the same time as 27 other European countries line up to oppose us.”
Ms May added: “So we need the strongest possible hand, the strongest possible mandate and the strongest possible leadership as we go into those talks.”
The Prime Minister acknowledged that, in taking the election fight to Leeds, she was speaking in “one of the places that people call a ‘traditional Labour area’.”
But she said: “If you vote for me to strengthen my hand at the negotiating table in Brussels, I will do everything I can to represent the interests of every person in this great city – and every person in this great country.”
The speech is the starkest evidence yet that the Conservatives believe the election offers the opportunity, not only to retain power, but also to dramatically remake British politics by fatally weakening Labour.
Four of the five Leeds seats are Labour-held, mostly with huge – normally impregnable – majorities. The other currently has a Liberal Democrat MP.
Two of the city MPs are Labour big-hitters Hilary Benn, the former shadow Foreign Secretary, and Rachel Reeves, formerly work and pensions spokeswoman.
Earlier, Ms May made a speech in Clay Cross, a former mining town in Derbyshire, having targeted vulnerable seats in Wales earlier this week.
Although one poll suggested the Tory lead slipping, it was still a daunting 16 points, with some Labour MPs warning the election threatens to be “a bloodbath” for Jeremy Corbyn’s party.
Tony Blair further lowered morale by suggesting the Conservatives were on course to win the election, arguing the only issue was whether Ms May would win big enough to secure a “blank cheque” for Brexit.
In Leeds, Ms May also underlined her determination to make the contest what some are terming a presidential-style one – exploiting her huge advantage of Mr Corbyn in opinion poll approval ratings.
“Here – and in every constituency across the country – it may say Labour on the ballot, but its Jeremy Corbyn that gets the vote,” she said.
“There are only two people who can possibly be Prime Minister on the 9 June. Only two people who can possibly represent Britain in Europe.
“The choice is between five years of strong and stable leadership with me as Prime Minister, or a coalition of chaos with Jeremy Corbyn at the helm, a weak leader negotiating Brexit and higher taxes, debt and waste.”