Tories fear humiliation at the European elections, heaping further pressure on Theresa May’s leadership.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the European Research Group of Brexiteer Conservatives, said the May 23 contest looked set to be “difficult” and pleaded with disillusioned Tories to stick with the party for the sake of Mrs May’s successor.
Ministerial aide Huw Merriman said the party faced a “mauling” as an opinion poll suggested the Conservatives could slump to fifth place in the contest, which is taking place because Brexit has been delayed.
The YouGov study for the Times put the Tories on just 10% for the Euro-election, behind the Brexit Party on 34%, Labour on 16%, the Liberal Democrats on 15% and the Greens on 11%.
In a general election, the poll suggested the Tories would be neck and neck with Labour on just 24%, with the Brexit Party on 18% and Lib Dems on 16%.
Mr Rees-Mogg hit out at the “complete vacuum of leadership” at Westminster and called on Mrs May to leave office, saying she had lost the support of the grassroots in Conservative associations across the country.
“At the moment, nobody is saying anything supportive of the leader or of the leader’s policy and the majority of people in associations I’m addressing – and these are members of the party – tell me they are voting for the Brexit Party.”
On LBC radio Mr Rees-Mogg, whose sister Annunziata is standing for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, called for Conservative voters to show loyalty even if they did not like Mrs May.
“The opinion polls are far from promising for the Conservatives for the European elections. You have to ask yourself ‘why should Conservatives go out’,” he said.
“The truth is that people like me will vote Conservative because we are loyal Conservatives who will support the party in any election.
“But many Conservatives, people who have been members for decades, feel this is a two-pronged opportunity – one, to say why haven’t we left? And the other to say ‘we are not entirely convinced by the current leadership’.
“And people feel that if they vote Conservative they will be saying they are accepting Mrs May’s deal and Mrs May’s leadership.
“Many Conservatives, most Conservatives, want to leave the EU and would prefer to leave on WTO terms, the so-called no-deal exit, and therefore they don’t feel that they should go out and support the Tories on this occasion.
“The results look as though they will be difficult.”
In a message to Tories, he said: “I would appeal to their loyalty, to their tradition, and to say that the Conservative Party will get a new leader at some point.”
He added: “We want that new leader to have a base on which he or she can build and if we find that we are getting under 15% of the vote, if we are coming fifth behind the Greens, then it will be harder for that figure to rebuild.”
Chancellor Philip Hammond’s ministerial aide Huw Merriman said he expected a bleak set of results from the European contests, with both pro-EU and Brexit-supporting voters turning against them.
“We’re at the perfect storm, so yes, I think we’ll get an absolute mauling,” he told BBC’s Westminster Hour.
The ConservativeHome website, an influential voice within the party, said the powerful 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers should be prepared to signal the end of Mrs May’s leadership by changing the party’s rules to allow a fresh challenge to her position.
The Prime Minister is due to meet the committee’s executive later this week and the website’s editor Paul Goodman, a former Tory MP, said they must act.
He said: “However unpalatable it may be, the Committee must, if she refuses this week to go by the end of the summer, change the leadership challenge rules immediately – perhaps with a trigger ballot threshold of 40% or so.
“We are well aware that the most painless course for them is to opt for manana. But the wait for tomorrow risks marginalisation – even oblivion.”
– YouGov polled 2,212 British adults on May 8-9.