POLITICS
05/06/2019 07:55 BST

Brexit Party Storms Ahead In Peterborough By-Election As Voters Tire Of Two-Party Rule

Bookies no longer taking bets on Nigel Farage's party getting its first MP.

Mike Greene, the man on course to be elected the Brexit Party’s first ever MP, is taking a moment from his final few hours of campaigning to be a bit naughty. 

Creasing up with laughter, he leans on a speed camera - the same device which caught out Peterborough’s ex-Labour MP Fiona Onasanya, and ultimately caused her political downfall - while one of his team takes a snap.

“You’ve got to have some fun, haven’t you,” he grins.

It shows an extraordinary amount of confidence from Greene, suggesting he thinks voters in this Cambridgeshire city borough are ready to send him to Westminster in Thursday’s by-election.

Given that bookies in the city have stopped taking bets on Nigel Farage’s fledgling political project emerging victorious, he may be right.

Knocking on doors in the rural village of Eye, traditionally a Tory stronghold, his campaign manager counts his list of responses “yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, maybe”. 

“If we’re going off the response on the doors, we are feeling very positive,” Greene tells HuffPost UK. 

Brexit Party candidate Mike Greene on the campaign trail.

This seat has swung between Labour and Tory for decades, with Onasanya snatching the seat after the post-Coalition collapse of the Lib Dem vote in 2017.

When in January the Labour MP was convicted of perverting the course of justice over lying about driving when her car was caught speeding, Peterborough voters used a petition to oust her and triggered the by-election. 

Now, they look set to replace her with something completely different. 

Estimating around 70% of his support is coming from Conservative voters angry at Theresa May’s failure to deliver Brexit, however, Greene says: “They are standing up and saying ‘I support Brexit’ and it’s a bit of an ‘I Am Spartacus’ moment. The fears that have been pushed on them by the media and institutions are dropping away and it’s like ‘I Am Spartacus, I vote Brexit’.” 

Greene actively sells himself as a former Tory - “I was Conservative until March 29 and then I thought this is as far as I can go with this party” - and is avowedly  “pro-business and pro-free markets”.

The 54-year-old dad-of-two, who many Eye residents instantly recognise from his appearance on Channel 4′s The Secret Millionaire, is a slick performer. 

It’s a handy skill, given the Brexit Party doesn’t really have a manifesto to speak of. 

When voters raise this, Greene plainly counters that “all politicians break promises” and he will offer voters “a contract” with “four pillars”. 

These are locally-focused, vague and leave plenty of wriggle room. A pledge to protect the greenbelt, but build houses, for example, and a vow to use his business experience to create jobs.

He openly admits the Brexit Party has little to say on big issues such as what taxes people could be asked to pay or climate change. “I mean, obviously I have children and I want my children to have children,” he says.

Despite predictions from both bookies and polling companies, Labour, Conservative, and, to a lesser extent, the Lib Dems have thrown the kitchen sink at the seat.

Paul Bristow, the Tory candidate, has been joined by “pretty much a cabinet minister every day” remarks one shopper in Peterborough’s busy Queensgate city centre, with Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid among them. 

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, has been one of the many shadow frontbenchers in the area hoping Lisa Forbes can hang on to the seat despite the Euro-elections suggesting their Remain coalition was splintering to the Lib Dems and Greens. 

While Bristow, who has previously tried to get elected in London and Teesside areas, has faced accusations of being “not really local”, Forbes has been caught up in a race storm after it emerged she endorsed an anti-Semitic Facebook post which claimed May had a “Zionist slave masters agenda”. 

But rather than a sharp focus on such issues, the dominant theme was one of general disaffection and frustration over Brexit.

Not everyone was overjoyed with the idea of ‘Mike Greene MP’. 

Jonathan Lloyd, a 50-year-old Remainer and mental health worker, was previously a Corbyn backer, but told HuffPost UK: “There is no candidate for me.” 

Acknowledging Greene was likely to win, he adds: “The Brexit Party is just Thatcherism. Pin-stripe fascism, I call it. They might win but they won’t win a general election.

“But as Isaac Newton said ‘for every action, there is an opposite and equal reaction’ so you might find that they stimulate something that they don’t like. 

“This might develop people’s opposition. If we have the under-35s who let this bunch of saddos carry on, well, let’s see what the reaction is.” 

Brexit was not solely down to immigration, he adds.  

“People are voting for Brexit because we have seen industry closed down and wages dragged down,” he says. “It’s not anti-foreigner, really. I worked for Hotpoint for seven years and now they make nothing. It used to be an engineering city and now we have no industry. 

“That’s the real story in Peterborough.”

PA Wire/PA Images
Corbyn campaigning with Labour candidate Lisa Forbes 

Malcolm Ravenshill, 57, is a welder and fabricator by trade and backed Brexit in 2016. 

Despite being angry over school cuts, crime and homelessness, Labour’s anti-austerity message leaves him cold. 

“I’m working class, just a normal person,” he says. “The last couple of times I’ve voted Conservative because some of the things they said they were going to do I was convinced by. 

“But now, to be honest, it feels like none of the politicians are in touch with reality.” 

Honouring the result of the 2016 referendum is important to him but so is total political renewal. 

“There doesn’t seem to be set rules for anything,” he says. “I just want something completely new. We had a referendum and we voted to leave Europe and now they are changing the goalposts so I thought, let’s go for Mike and just see what happens.” 

Grandmother Theresa Borges, who works in customer services, has seen “lots and lots of leaflets” from all the candidates. 

She adds: “I’m completely confused really, there is a lot of instability and I think voters feel a bit lost. 

“I will vote for Lisa and Labour because she is obviously fighting the bigger fight but I sympathise with people who voted for Brexit though. I get it. 

“The UK is a superpower but the deal we have negotiated is bad, it’s like we lost.” 

Peterborough has swung between Labour and Tory for decades.

Heather Marsh, a 40-year-old teaching assistant, is a Remainer who will vote Lib Dem, despite backing Labour previously. 

“I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn is the right kind of person to be leading, he’s a wet fish. I don’t like the anti-Semitism surrounding Labour either. 

“The Brexit Party guy came round but I closed the door. I just feel this country needs something and nobody seems to know what it needs.”

Asked if she would be sad if the Brexit Party represented her constituency, she adds: “I don’t think it will necessarily be awful. It’ll just be different.” 

Cordelia Fitzgerald, 49, a tenancy support worker, won’t vote but said homelessness is rife. 

“Our system is corrupt,” she said. “If we voted to Leave we should leave. I don’t think there is any big push for a second referendum.” 

Mark Tunstall, 34, a benefits team leader, describes himself as a Remainer, but he also won’t vote on Thursday. 

“It’s going to be a shame for us to be the only Brexit Party MP in the country,” he says, looking out over the market place. “They say on their billboards they are going to stick up for the city, but that’s not why they want the seat, is it? It’s for wider political purposes. I feel like they’re using us.” 

The by-election is painted as a two-horse race with Labour fighting hard to dig out pockets of support in traditionally-strong areas such as Breton. But if the polls are to be believed, Corbyn’s party has a mountain climb. Greene’s campaign says the fresh new party is capable of taking in Conservative support both from the One Nation and Thatcherite branches. 

“I think we will soon see more and more Tory MPs come on board,” says Greene.

All that could change once the governing party has a new leader, but for now the Peterborough branch of Farage’s new army is riding high.