Brexit frustrations make snap election a big gamble for Johnson
By Andrew MacAskill
LINCOLN, England (Reuters) - James Bowkett is a long-time Conservative Party supporter who voted in 2016 for Britain to leave the European Union.
Three years later, the 58-year-old businessman is fed up waiting for Brexit to happen and is considering abandoning the Conservatives in a looming snap election.
"I am giving up on the Conservatives. There are too many people in that party who don't want to listen to the public," Bowkett, 58, said holding up an umbrella on a rainy day this week in Lincoln in eastern central England.
"I am beginning to doubt that Brexit will happen, and I don't think the Conservatives can deliver it alone."
Bowkett is just the sort of voter Prime Minister Boris Johnson needs if he is to win an election following parliament's rejection of a Brexit deal agreed by his predecessor, Theresa May, and the EU's refusal to renegotiate it.
Johnson wants an election to strengthen his mandate for pulling Britain out of the EU after his Conservative government lost its majority over his handling of Brexit. Opponents refuse to endorse an early election unless he rules out leaving the EU without a deal, which could cause a disorderly Brexit, but a snap poll is likely sooner or later.
It is a risky move. If Johnson fails to carry out a pledge to leave the EU on Oct. 31, frustrated Brexit supporters like Bowkett could be driven into the arms of the Brexit Party founded this year by euroskeptic Nigel Farage, polls show.
Johnson could lose power, the main opposition Labour Party could enter government and Brexit might never happen.
Even if Johnson can persuade the EU to accept a revision of the deal reached by Theresa May, it is unlikely to be enough to appease voters like Bowkett.
"If that (revision) happens, all this fighting will have been pointless," Bowkett said. "We will be the laughing stock of the world."
To win a majority in a general election, Johnson will be banking on winning in places such as Lincoln, a cathedral city that was an important settlement in Roman times and lies 120 miles (193 km) north of London.
The constituency, narrowly held by Labour, has been a bellwether of national trends in all but one election since 1979.
It voted 57% in favor of quitting the EU in the 2016 Brexit referendum - compared to the nationwide margin of 52-48 - and the Brexit Party finished top in local voting in European elections in May, as it did in the national vote.
The Brexit Party has proposed a non-aggression pact with the Conservatives to avoid diluting support for leaving the EU. But so far Johnson, who also risks losing votes to Labour and the pro-EU Liberal Democrats, has rejected its overtures.
Brexit supporters' frustration is evident in the streets beneath Lincoln's Norman castle. Many said they wanted to exit the EU so that some of the large sums Britain pays into the bloc's coffers can be reinvested in their community.
They say there are few good jobs, the transport system is underfunded and that immigration since the EU took in 10 new member states in 2004, most of them from the former Soviet bloc, is putting extra pressure on local services. A local road called Portland Street is known to locals as Poland Street. The nearby town of Boston has experienced the highest levels of immigration in Britain.
John Roland, a retired engineer, said the main institutions in Britain were failing and he planned to back the Brexit Party.
"I feel like we need some fresh blood," he said.
Brexit supporters broadly welcome Johnson's Brexit stance but say some Conservative lawmakers have undermined him by opposing his strategy of threatening the EU that Britain will leave without a deal if the terms on offer are not good enough.
"When you take away his 'atomic bomb', you have no leverage," said David Daniels, a Lincoln policeman and former member of the air force.
The Conservatives lead Labour by between one and 14 points in opinion polls. The Brexit party trails further behind but an ICM poll last week found support for Farage's party would double from nine percent to 18 percent in any election held after Oct. 31 if Britain had not left the EU by then.
The poll, commissioned by Represent Us — which is pushing for a second Brexit referendum — found the Conservatives' lead over Labour would evaporate in these circumstances.
There is no longer enough time to hold an election before November and EU negotiator Michel Barnier is not optimistic a divorce deal can be reached on or before Oct. 31.
Johnson's ability to take Britain out without a deal has also been hindered by parliament passing a law forcing him to seek a delay - which he has said he will not do.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said a decisive factor in the election would be whether euroskeptic voters have more confidence in Johnson or Farage over Brexit.
"That could be the crucial debate on which any election might well turn," he said.
Karl McCartney, the Conservative candidate for Lincoln and the local member of parliament between 2010 and 2017, acknowledged the threat from the Brexit Party.
"We know if we do not leave (the EU) ... the Brexit Party is the main danger, not the Labour Party," he said.
Farage, who has spoken at two rallies in Lincoln in the last five months, sees few options for Johnson and has proposed Conservative and Brexit Party candidates do not run against each other in more than 80 of the 650 parliamentary constituencies.
"I very much hope that Boris Johnson will simply look at the numbers," Farage told Reuters. "If we stand against them, they cannot win a majority."
(Reporting by Andrew MacAskill; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Timothy Heritage)