Tories braced for electoral mauling in local and European contests
Theresa May is braced for an electoral backlash over Brexit as voters prepare to go to the polls on Thursday.
Senior Tories acknowledged the party faces a "difficult" night in the local elections in England, with one expert predicting the party will lose more than 800 seats.
Worse could follow if May 23's European elections take place, with opinion polls suggesting the Conservatives lie a distant third behind the Brexit Party and Labour.
Tory chairman Brandon Lewis acknowledged "huge frustration" among grassroots members and activists as he pleaded with them to back the Conservatives rather than Nigel Farage's party.
And deputy chairwoman Helen Whately admitted the local elections "are going to be a difficult night for us".
Election pundit and Tory peer Lord Hayward said he expected the Conservatives to lose more than 800 councillors and "marked losses of control of authorities".
"The Tories are at an historic high for a governing party after nine years in power," he said.
"A fall from that level is therefore inevitable at some stage and it will come this year – with force."
He suggested Labour would gain around 300 seats from the Tories and the Liberal Democrats 500.
Elections will take place at 248 councils in England and Ms Whately admitted the contests in England were a chance to "kick the Government" and said she had seen "more anger than before" on the doorstep.
Speaking to Sky News' Sophy Ridge On Sunday, she said: "I think there's no doubt that it's going to be a difficult night for us."
She said it was down to the fact that the seats which were up for grabs this time round were last contested in 2015, the "high point" for her party but acknowledged that frustrations over Brexit were also a factor.
Ms Whately rejected claims that Theresa May was a "problem" and said she was "not sure it would be helpful" for the Prime Minsiter to be more clear in setting out a timetable for her departure.
Mr Lewis insisted it was still a possibility that a Brexit deal could be approved by MPs which would mean the May 23 European elections would not be required, but such an outcome appears highly unlikely given the lack of progress in talks with Labour.
Asked when the Tories would launch their campaign, he told the BBC's Andrew Marr Show: "Our first priority is to not have to fight the European elections. I think we should be looking to do everything we can to respect that 2016 referendum.
"If and when we are at the point where we know we are definitely fighting those European elections then we will take some decisions about that."
He played down reports about donors deserting the party, insisting that 2018 had been a "record peacetime fundraising year".
But he added: "I don't deny the frustration people in our party have over where we are on Brexit. I share that frustration, I want to get this done so we don't fight those European elections."
Polls have suggested that Tory members, and even elected councillors, will back the Brexit Party on May 23.
Mr Lewis said: "I fully appreciate the huge frustration that particularly our members and councillors have, that we haven't left the EU yet and we might have to fight these elections at all. But if we do, I hope they'll vote Conservative."
Derbyshire's Tory councillors have already said they will not campaign for Conservative candidates in the contest, but Mr Lewis said he hoped his party would unite behind its would-be MEPs.
"I hope that Conservative members, colleagues, volunteers, activists will come to want to not just vote for, but campaign for Conservatives to get elected, because ultimately Conservative representation is better than any other party," he said.
A YouGov study for Hope Not Hate put the Tories on 13% for the European contest, behind the Brexit Party on 28% and Labour on 22%.
The Tories were just three points ahead of the Greens and Change UK on 10%, with the Liberal Democrats on 7% and Ukip on 5% in the poll of 5,412 British adults conducted between April 23 and 26.
Brexiteer former Cabinet minister Priti Patel said "the mood is dark" on the doorstep.
She told BBC Radio 4's Westminster Hour: "The public are frustrated. They are fed up I think more widely with politics and the way in which Brexit has been handled and in particular the fact that, as many people say to me in my constituency, they expected us to leave effectively on March 29. This has not happened."
An electoral mauling in either of May's contests could heap further pressure on the Prime Minister to quit, and potential successors have been setting out their stalls.
Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss burnished her free market credentials by condemning a "worrying outbreak of neo-puritanism".
The Sunday Telegraph reported an essay written by Ms Truss for the Freer think tank in which she attacked the "nannying tendency" of the state.
"The assumption is that society is a machine where levers can be pulled, the handle can be cranked, and better results will ensue. So, there are calls to regulate or ban foods too high in sugar or fat, to reduce obesity. But people aren't machines – they are agents of their own destiny," it read.
Justice minister Rory Stewart, another potential leadership contender, said "the only hope for our party surviving is for us to be a very broad church" which could include moderates and hardline Brexiteers.
On BBC Radio 5 Live's Pienaar's Politics, Mr Stewart said he would not serve under a leader who wanted a no-deal Brexit, warning about the danger of "polarising, extreme right-wing politics".
Asked if he could remain in a Conservative Party led by Boris Johnson, Mr Stewart said: "I would find that difficult if he were campaigning for a no-deal Brexit."