Theresa May is coming under increasing pressure to quit as prime minister as new surveys highlighted the scale of the threat to the Conservatives of the new Brexit party, both in this month’s European Parliament poll and a possible general election.
Ministers admitted on Sunday the European Parliament elections on May 23 would be difficult for the Tories, with some Conservatives privately predicting a meltdown because of a surge in support for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party.
Mrs May will on Thursday meet the executive of the Tories’ 1922 committee of backbench MPs, when she is expected to face fresh pressure to name a departure date.
If she does not provide clarity, the committee may seek to change its rule book to allow MPs to force a Tory leadership election sooner than the current permitted date of December 12.
A substantial number of Conservative MPs and activists want Mrs May to make way for a new leader quickly because of her failure to get her Brexit deal approved by the House of Commons.
The prime minister has only said she will step down once her deal is passed by parliament, and MPs’ rejection of the EU withdrawal agreement has forced Brexit to be delayed from March 29 to as late as October 31.
One of the Conservative party’s candidates for the European Parliament elections described the mood on the campaign trail as “absolutely terrible”, saying “the problem is the PM personally. Not her deal or her policies — her”.
“If she stands aside this week — that is, if the succession is already formally under way by polling day — there may be something for her successor to salvage. If not, we are looking at the end of the Conservative party.”
Two opinion polls on Sunday suggested the Brexit party is set to come first in the European elections.
An Opinium survey for the Observer found that 34 per cent of people intend to vote for Mr Farage’s party, with Labour on 21 per cent, the Liberal Democrats on 12 and the Conservatives trailing in fourth place on 11 per cent.
A ComRes poll put the Brexit party on 27 per cent, with Labour on 25, the Lib Dems on 14 and the Tories on 13.
This survey — commissioned by Brexit Express, a pro-Leave organisation — also asked people about their voting intentions in a general election, finding that Labour was on 27 per cent, the Brexit party on 20 per cent and the Conservatives on 19 per cent.
The local elections on May 2 increased the pressure on Mrs May after the Tories lost more than 1,000 seats: the party’s worst performance in over 20 years.
One senior Conservative MP said “the pressure will be overwhelming” for Mrs May to resign after the European Parliament elections.
“The Euro elections matter more than the local elections because they will show us the number of people for whom leaving the EU is their number one priority above all else,” added the MP.
“They’re mostly Conservative voters and they easily represent a quarter of the electorate.”
Damian Hinds, education secretary, said no one was in any doubt that the European elections would be “difficult” for the Tories.
“For some people this is the ultimate protest vote opportunity,” he told the BBC. “Actually, ironically this is, in a sense, for some people, this is the second referendum.”
Robert Buckland, justice minister, said that while “nobody wanted” the European Parliament elections, it would be seen as a “giant opinion poll as to the merits of Brexit”.
Another minister said: “The door knocking I was doing in the run-up to local elections reinforces the [polling] numbers. People are really really angry.
“Farage would have always kicked off . . . But had we left on March 29, he could have self-evidently not been able to argue ‘This is not Brexit’.”
Meanwhile Mr Farage said that, although the Brexit party had a “clear policy platform” of leaving the EU without a deal, it would not be producing a formal manifesto.
“Manifesto to me has a word association with lie, because that’s what we’ve had in election after election,” he told the BBC. “Policy platforms, no manifestos from the Brexit party.”