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Peterborough by-election: Could Nigel Farage claim his next Rochester-and-Strood?

Emilio Casalicchio

7 min read

Is the Brexit Party about to send its first MP to Westminster? Party insiders think so - if only they can work out who their voters are. 

In 2014 Nigel Farage gave the British political system a shock when Ukip won its first seat in Westminster. Just six months after the party stormed the European Parliament elections in May that year, Tory defector Mark Reckless won back his Rochester-and-Strood seat under the purple banner. Farage is hoping for a similar first this Thursday - winning a Westminster seat for his new Brexit Party.

In less than half a year of existence, the Brexit Party has shattered the political order, culminating in an astonishing victory at the European Parliament elections last month. Farage has seized on the political deadlock at Westminster and once more galvanised swathes of the electorate who want Brexit finished and who want to kick the establishment in the process.

At the Peterborough by-election he again hopes to hammer home his message of betrayal and discontent by seeing candidate and businessman Mike Green take a seat in the Commons. And he has a good chance of succeeding.

The ultra-marginal seat was left empty after voters booted out Labour MP Fiona Onasanya in the first ever successful recall petition. Onasanya clinched the seat by just 607 votes at the 2017 general election, after it was passed between the two main parties for decades. But in January this year she was jailed for perverting the course of justice after she lied to police about a speeding fine - claiming her brother was driving instead of her - and the people of Peterborough sent her packing.

In a seat that voted 61% for Brexit in the EU referendum and handed the Brexit Party twice as many votes in the European Parliament elections than Labour, Team Farage is in its element. 

A Brexit Party spokesman says the race is going “phenomenally well,” while a source on the ground adds: “We rely on a belief that Peterborough has spoken twice and will speak a third time.” Bookies have stopped taking bets on the movement, while the party claims to have had 750 people out campaigning the weekend before the election, including some who travelled all the way from France.

Greene, a Peterborough-born ex-Tory and former star of Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire, tells PoliticsHome: “My mind has been blown by just how strongly people feel about Brexit, by how strongly people feel about restoring democracy and how strongly people feel about being let down by the other parties.” Farage adds: “We will be a good second place at worst, but the point is we are a new party with energy but no data.”

Keiran Pedley, research director at pollster IpsosMORI says: “The Brexit Party will be confident they can win on Thursday given that Peterborough voted 60% to Leave the EU in 2016 and the European elections showed that plenty of Conservative voters are prepared to back the party to show their anger over Brexit.”

Indeed, many Tories are expecting a drubbing when the results come in. One MP who campaigned in the seat tells PoliticsHome: “I was canvassing in a very good Conservative area with targeted households and half of them were saying they were not going to vote for us." They added: “The Conservatives are going to come third. Either the Brexit Party will win or the Labour party will win. We are not in with a shout. It’s a shame - we’ve got a great candidate [Paul Bristow] - a really nice guy.” Bristow was approached by PoliticsHome for comment. Another senior Tory source says: “If I put on my rose-tinted glasses and look through the bottom of a rosé bottle I can say we won’t be completely f*cked.”

But the problem for the Brexit Party is it has no idea where its voters are. Having only been around a few months, the movement has been unable to build the vast canvas databases their opponents will be wielding. It means targeting the correct houses effectively to get their voters out for them on polling day will be all-but impossible. “We have got a very strong air game, we are doing a hell of a lot of work, but they have data and we do not,” the Brexit Party spokesman says. “We are wandering around in a smoky room. But we know there’s a door there and it’s possible we could pull it off.”

The Labour party is well aware of the advantage it holds - despite sources who spoke to PoliticsHome expecting the Brexit Party to take the seat. “If we are going to win it will be the fact that we have got that infrastructure - we have got that data - and the Brexit Party don’t have that,” a source explains. But they add: “It’s not looking great.” There has been some surprise for Labour that the Onasanya issue has not been hung around its neck, and it has been given a boost by usually non-voters or Lib Dem and Green supporters eager to vote tactically stop Farage winning a seat. But one Labour MP who has spent time campaigning in the seat thinks the party is done for regardless. “I think we’re going to get thumped,” they told PoliticsHome. “Most of the people I spoke to on the doorstep were saying they haven’t made their minds up. But as an experienced canvasser you know that’s a lie. When they say that so close to polling day it’s because they are not going to vote for you.”

Labour suffered an extra blow when its candidate Lisa Forbes was forced to apologise at the weekend after it emerged she liked a social media post that claimed Theresa May had a “Zionist Slave Masters agenda” and commented on a thread which claimed Isis was created and funded by the CIA and Mossad. She argued she had not been engaging with those specific points in both incidents. Forbes was approached by PoliticsHome for comment.

Another problem for the party is that it could lose votes to the Remain-backing parties, the Lib Dems and Greens, since it has no clear position on Brexit itself. Keiran Pedley from IpsosMORI says it would “not be a shock to see the Lib Dems poll ahead of Labour”. He adds: “They did it in the European elections and they have been seeing huge increases in support in Westminster voting intention polling recently.”

Lib Dem candidate and local businesswoman Beki Sellick agrees that the European elections were a “kick up the arse” for anti-Brexit campaigners, meaning growing support for Farage is boosting the Lib Dem vote. “There are two main parties in this country now,” she tells PoliticsHome. “They are the Brexit Party and us. And if you want to not have a Nigel Farage MP then you need to vote for the Liberal Democrats.”

She brands the vote "a Brexit by-election" - and notes that only the two opposing forces on Brexit are willing to talk about it during the campaign. Indeed, Labour has been focused on the NHS and other public services issues, while the Tory candidate has been complaining about fly-tipping and the failure of the (Tory) council which has failed to fix the issue. The Brexit Party and Lib Dems have their local gripes too, but it is clear where their campaign foundations lie. 

A win for the Brexit Party will be a fresh kick in the teeth for the two main parties at Westminster. For Labour it will reaffirm the need to take a solid stance on Brexit, especially if it loses votes to the Lib Dems the way it did at the European elections. But the Conservatives will feel the pressure even more keenly at a time when they are highly vulnerable. Leadership candidates are falling over themselves to appeal to a doggedly pro-Brexit membership, and could be willing to go more extreme the more they feel Farage breathing down their necks. A Brexit Party source says: “If this is a Brexit Party success it will send massive shockwaves into the Tory leadership campaign.” It is hard to disagree.

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