Mark Francois is a former Defence Minister, and is MP for Rayleigh and Wickford. He is Deputy Chairman of the European Research Group.
Last week, I spent two days in the North East of England, which in some ways was the heartland of the Leave vote during the EU Referendum. That iconic result from Sunderland, which declared early and showed an emphatic vote for Leave, led the way as the results unfolded throughout the night.
My main reason for going was that one of my previous Parliamentary Researchers, the estimable Christopher Howarth – who is now the Senior Researcher of the European Research Group (ERG) – is standing as the Conservative Candidate in Houghton and Sunderland South. I have known Christopher for well over a decade and he would make an excellent Member of Parliament, so I wanted to support him.
Whilst there, I also took an opportunity to help some of our candidates in some more established North East marginals, such as Dehenna Davison, our very sparky candidate in Bishop Auckland and Peter Gibson, our equally dynamic candidate in Darlington. However, whilst in Sunderland, I made a point of asking Chris to take me out to one of the toughest Labour wards, so I could have a chance to do some door knocking of my own and find out what was really happening to the core Labour vote there. The results were remarkable.
On door after door, I spoke to people who identified as lifelong Labour voters, but who said they would not vote for them this time. However, they didn’t say I’m not voting Labour, almost without exception they said: “I’m not voting for Corbyn.” The people of the North East are much like my own constituents in Essex. They are by and large patriotic and hard-working and for them, Corbyn is obviously as toxic as he is for my constituents as well.
This situation gives us a remarkable opportunity. For instance, in the YouGov MRP poll which was published last week, the predicted vote shares for Houghton and Sunderland South were as follows:
Brexit Party 16%
Liberal Democrats 6%
In other words, if all Brexit Party supporters in that constituency voted Tory, the Labour incumbent, Bridget Phillipson, who has voted time and again in the Commons to frustrate Brexit, could potentially be defeated by a passionately Brexiteer Conservative. I believe this now has a much wider lesson for the general election as a whole.
The YouGov MRP poll of something like 100,000 voters, is probably the most extensive survey we are likely to see prior to John Curtice’ exit poll on Election day itself. Because of its wide scope, it was able to provide predictions for every seat in the country. Whilst all individual polls should always be taken with a pinch of salt, it does nevertheless, give an indication of what might be possible if Brexit Party supporters in traditional Labour seats were now to vote Conservative instead.
YouGov specifically identified at least eight such seats, including Weaver Vale, High Peak, Alyn and Deeside, Bury North, Bolton North East, Gower, Sedgefield (the irony is almost unbearable) and Delyn. Conversely, the Brexit Party was shown as winning no seats at all. Even in Hartlepool, which they have long regarded as one of their prime targets, they still came in third, well short of the Conservative in second place.
Similarly, whilst UKIP historically did very well in European Elections, they hardly ever won any seats in subsequent general elections and that pattern now appears likely to be repeated again next month by their Brexit Party successors. In other words, a Brexit Party vote, however, earnestly cast, is now, bluntly, likely to be a wasted one.
I know a number of ardent Brexit Party supporters but none of them, as far as I know, have ever been in favour of a Marxist Government. We now have the most amazing opportunity to deliver an emphatic victory over Corbyn’s extremists – and achieve Brexit into the bargain. Crucially, if Brexit Party supporters accept the results of the YoGov poll, which shows that it is unlikely to win in any single constituency, if they voted Tory instead, as the poll also shows, they could help defeat a raft of pro Remain incumbents across the country.
The one thing that might be holding such people back is the inaccurate perception that Boris Johnson’s deal doesn’t really take us out of the EU. It does. Without going into all the precise details of the differences between his deal and Theresa May’s version, the two key changes are that, firstly, the Backstop (and thus the Customs Union, which would have kept us effectively in the EU) are removed and, secondly, the Political Declaration has now been significantly amended, so that the desired end state is a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement – something which Eurosceptics in the ERG have been advocating for many years.
Put another way, does anyone really believe that Bill Cash would knowingly have voted for a deal in the Commons that kept us in the EU? Moreover, the entire ERG (including all 28 so-called “Spartans”) voted for this deal. The bottom line is that while it isn’t perfect (for instance I still oppose paying billions of pounds to the EU for the privilege of leaving) it does actually take us out of the European Union and therefore, no Brexiteer should be in fear of voting for it.
In summary, we now have the most remarkable opportunity to leave the European Union once and for all, demonstrate a strong mandate to negotiate a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement and crush the Marxists – all at the same time.
Given everything that is at stake, as the Deputy Chairman of the ERG I now urge all Eurosceptics, including those who regard themselves as Brexit Party supporters, to vote for the Conservative candidate in their constituency as that now provides by far the best opportunity, not just to leave the European Union but to secure the future of our country against a Marxist threat. There is a week to go – and not a moment to waste.