Conservative members and activists are likely to abandon the party in vast numbers in the European parliament elections in favour of Nigel Farage’s Brexit party, two surveys have suggested.
A questionnaire of party members for the ConservativeHome website found 62% were planning to vote for the Brexit party if the European elections went ahead in the UK in May as expected, and only 23% intended to vote for their own party.
Separately, a poll of Conservative councillors by Survation for the Mail on Sunday found 40% were planning to vote for the Brexit party, and only 52% for the party they represent in local government.
Ministers have claimed the European elections could still be cancelled if MPs approved the Brexit agreement first, but parliament would also have to pass the withdrawal agreement legislation before 23 May and at Westminster it is widely assumed that even if Theresa May found a surprise majority for a deal there is no realistic chance of her meeting this timetable.
Polls published last week showed the Brexit party was on course for victory at the European elections, with the Tories heading for third place behind Labour. If Theresa May is struggling to maintain the loyalty of her own members and councillors, then non-member supporters might be even more inclined to defect.
ConservativeHome regularly publishes surveys of what party members think that in the past have served as broadly accurate guides to how members end up voting in internal elections, but Paul Goodman, a former Tory MP and the editor of ConservativeHome, said the results released on Sunday were “the most astonishing we have ever published”.
In a commentary, he said there were four reasons why almost two-thirds of members might be willing to abandon their party in May: “sheer anger” at the Brexit delay; a belief that the European elections do not matter; a sense that voting for the Brexit party is respectable because it is less extreme than Ukip; and the hope that a terrible result could prompt May to resign.
The Survation survey also suggests May’s leadership is a problem for Tory councillors. Only about half of them said they were planning to vote Conservative at the European elections, but that rose to 65% if Boris Johnson were party leader, with only 22% saying they would vote for the Brexit party in those circumstances.
Survation also found 43% of Conservative councillors believed May should resign now, with 33% saying she should go after a Brexit deal has passed and only 21% saying she should stay.
Survation questioned 781 Conservative councillors for its survey, while the ConservativeHome exercise involved responses from 1,132 members.
In an article for the Sunday Telegraph, Farage, who founded the Brexit party after various spells as Ukip leader before and after the 2016 referendum, claimed that many Tory voters were so angry about the delay in the UK leaving the EU that they have resolved never to vote for the party again.
Photograph: Hannah McKay/Reuters
Referring to a decision by Derbyshire Conservatives not to campaign in the European elections, Farage said: “The faithful servants of one of the oldest political parties in the world are on strike. They refuse to go out and canvass, such is their anger – and, no doubt, sheer embarrassment – at the appalling mess created by our dishonest prime minister.”
The latest YouGov opinion poll for the European elections has the Brexit party on 23%, Labour on 22% and the Conservatives on 17%. Three weeks before the European elections, the Tories also face a drubbing at the local elections where, according to an analysis by the local election experts Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher for the Sunday Times based current voting in local council byelections, the party is on course to lose more than 400 seats.
When MPs return to the Commons after the Easter break on Tuesday, many Tories are likely to point to the latest polling as fresh evidence for why May should resign and allow the party to elect a new leader.
The backbench 1922 Committee recently rejected calls for the party rules to be rewritten to allow a fresh vote of no confidence in May now instead of in December, 12 months after the last one, but Sir Graham Brady, the committee chair, is reportedly considering telling May that could change if she did not go by the end of June.
May has said she intends to step down once her Brexit deal is passed. But if she fails to get a deal through parliament within the next few weeks, either as a result of a compromise with Labour, or as a result of an indicative votes process, she would find it hard to justify remaining in office anyway.