I’m the Conservative candidate for Guildford Council’s Lovelace ward at the coming election on 2nd May. I’m standing in a part of Surrey that voted Remain and only a few years ago my ward was the safest Conservative seat on Guildford Council, before local problems with development and illegal waste destroyed a lot of trust and the Lib Dems seized their chance. Still, in normal times, it should be eminently possible to win it back.
Instead, the message from voters on all sides has been deafening: the failure of the Government to deliver the manifesto promises it made on Brexit has destroyed trust in the party. You might expect to come across the occasional hostile voter in any election, but now the anger is universal. And the most vitriolic are those who voted Conservative last time. They feel totally betrayed over Brexit.
They increasingly see the Withdrawal Agreement as a sham. Trust in the Government has been destroyed as voters see every lever pulled in the attempt to avoid delivering on the referendum result, including offering the reins to the most extreme Labour leadership there has ever been.
The message on the doorstep is the same as the message from recent polls: more and more people have had enough and just want out. They see leaving on WTO terms – the ‘no deal’ that our overwhelmingly Remain-backing MPs so hate – as the only way forward now. They see the Government as doubly to blame: first for failing to negotiate an acceptable deal and then for failing to live up to its own promise that it would leave without a deal rather than take a bad one.
Talking to candidates in neighbouring wards, I quickly found that everyone was having the same experience. We had to make our voices heard – we wanted to let the Government know the damage that fudge and failure are doing to the Conservative Party and plead for a change in policy while there was still time.
We drafted a letter to the Prime Minister and circulated amongst our network to see how many candidates felt the same. In less than 24 hours, we had over 100 council candidates signing up across the country and the letter was published last weekend in the Sunday Telegraph.
There are no channels by which council candidates can easily contact each other, so the speed at which support grew and the message spread was a shock. Someone would contact a candidate for another council and in no time, we’d find that an entire slate of local Conservative councillors had signed up.
Unlike Remain, who have drawn on eye-watering sums from big financiers to fund stunts and campaigns pushing for a re-run of the referendum, we had no money or organisation behind us. We’re just genuine Conservative councillors and candidates who want our party to succeed.
Undoubtedly, if we’d kept on longer, we would have had hundreds, perhaps thousands of names. But with events in Westminster moving fast, we decided it was more important to get the message out to the party quickly, while there was still time to change course.
Over and over again, candidates told the same story. Everywhere, Conservative support is collapsing – voters are furious – and the only real hope is that somehow, at the last minute, the parliamentary party will see sense and deliver a Brexit on WTO terms – the so-called ‘no deal’ that polling shows is now backed by a majority of the British public.
What I hear in Surrey is echoed all over the country. Here’s Cllr Jacob Young, who is standing in Redcar and Cleveland, relaying the view from his area:
“It’s hard knocking on the same doors where they told us they were voting Conservative last year but now are turning away from us – especially since the news we’re now negotiating not just with Barnier and Juncker, but with Corbyn too. Many people say that we were supposed to have left by now and whether they’re a Leaver or Remainer, they’re upset that we’re still talking about the same thing we have been for the last three years. People just want us to get on and leave, and if that means no deal – we’re ready for it. The only thing saving us is that the Labour Party want to extend all this mess into a second referendum, lock us into the Customs Union and keep freedom of movement as part of a future deal. It would be catastrophic if we even considered these things.”
Some candidates relayed quotes to me they’ve heard while canvassing. They underline just how tough it’s been to campaign. Here are just a few:
“I’d rather vote Monster Raving Loony than Conservative now. She’s totally humiliated the country. Please tell everyone how angry people are. I am sick of seeing pictures of MPs laughing in Parliament while they trash our democracy. There’s no respect at all. I voted to Leave and so did my family.”
“After she’s gone in with Corbyn, I’m voting for Nigel. I hate Corbyn and she’s gone in with him.”
“I’ve left the Conservative Party. I feel totally betrayed. I wouldn’t trust you lot now if you came round clutching personal endorsements from the Dalai Lama and Mother Teresa.”
“May has humiliated our great country in the eyes of the world. No deal is better than a bad deal – what happened to that?”
“I thought Theresa May meant it when she said she was going to give us Brexit. Kick her out and the rest of them – Dominic Grieve and all the others who lied to us about respecting the referendum – then maybe I’d think about the Conservatives again.”
All this, remember, is for council elections – elections where the focus is on local issues and Brexit is in reality irrelevant. If we see an extension until after the European elections and we therefore have to fight them, it is hard to imagine who will possibly vote for the Conservative Party – or who will go out to campaign. It is very possible that for the first time in history, the party of Government could win absolutely no seats at a national election.
The Brexit Party will surely storm to victory. It seems that no consideration on earth will make Theresa May and Remain-backing ministers like David Lidington and Amber Rudd consider honouring the 2016 referendum vote and the promises they made when they were elected in 2017. The public now believes that for them, no humiliation is too base, no dishonour too shameful, no betrayal too great. And as candidates for the Conservative Party, the likes of me are judged as complicit in this behaviour.
Let Theresa May and her Government prove the judgement of voters wrong. It’s not too late. They could still turn away from deals with Jeremy Corbyn, from further delays, capitulations and betrayals. They could uphold democracy and regain respect.
They should reflect on what they are doing to the great party that gave them power and what history will say of them. Perhaps if they can clear their minds and think sensibly, they will make wiser decisions. It’s not too late to change course. But there’s only one way to do that – by delivering a proper Brexit, which means leaving on WTO terms.