Leading figures from Labour and the Conservatives are poised to descend upon Peterborough amid concerns that the Brexit party is on the verge of victory in next Thursday’s crucial byelection.
Nigel Farage’s fledgling organisation, which triumphed at last week’s European elections, is the bookmakers’ favourite to win the Cambridgeshire seat following the recall of the former Labour whip Fiona Onasanya.
Both Jeremy Corbyn and the former prime minister Gordon Brown are expected in the leave-voting city for Labour over the next few days for a race which has become dominated by the government’s failure to leave Europe.
The Tories are expecting “several cabinet ministers” to arrive this weekend in the hope that they might fight off a collapse in their vote. They were expected to win it back in the immediate aftermath of Onasanya’s conviction for lying about a speeding ticket.
A win for the Brexit party would give it a first foothold in Westminster and help build a serious political machine for a general election. He will lead a rally in Peterborough on Saturday and has urged dozens of activists to descend upon the city.
Brexit party sources have played down a possible win for Mike Greene, a local businessman who has switched support from the Conservatives, saying they have done little to identify or persuade their potential voters.
“We do not have the data that you need to get your vote out, but we’ll give it a shot,” said a close aide to Farage, emphasising that the party is just six weeks old.
In contrast, Labour and the Conservatives have been canvassing since Onasanya was found guilty in December in the expectation that a byelection would be held.
Labour aides are aware that Corbynneeds to show the party can still win outside urban strongholds following disappointing local election results and a damaging row over the party’s position on a second Brexit referendum.
Activists campaigning for their candidate, the local Unite activist Lisa Forbes, said they hope they have done enough to fight off the Brexit party surge.
Ed Murphy, a Labour councillor who has been canvassing since January and has returned to some voters four times, said he has witnessed a recent change in voters’ focus.
“It seems that the election has become about how people feel about Brexit and not the real issues around Peterborough such as housing, the economy and crime. On the day, hopefully enough people will vote for what is best and return a Labour MP,” he said.
Some voters have cited Onasanya as a reason to desert Labour, but not as many as activists feared. The former MP was ejected from the party in December, and was subsequently jailed for lying to the police to avoid three points on her licence.
A local resurgence of the Liberal Democrats could also chip away at Labour’s vote.
Beki Sellick, the Lib Dem candidate, said local Labour members are fed up with Labour’s failure to take a stand on whether it wants to leave or stay in the EU.
“There are quite a few Labour party members who tell me they are going to do an Alastair Campbell,” she said, referring to the current row over Labour’s decision to expel Tony Blair’s former spin doctor for voting for the Lib Dems. “I’m feeling very positive about this.”
The Conservatives’ campaign has tried to make an asset of the pro-leave credentials of their candidate Paul Bristow, a lobbyist who works in Westminster. He has pledged to vote through Brexit as soon as possible if elected. One local Tory told the Guardian that confidence has ebbed away since parliament’s failure to enact Brexit on 29 March.
“At this stage, we think we know our potential voter. But we just don’t know how soft that vote actually is until the votes are counted,” he said.
At a hustings in St John’s Church in the city centre on Tuesday night, Greene, an entrepreneur who has appeared on the Channel 4 show The Secret Millionaire, was criticised by political opponents for representing a party without a manifesto or programme for government.
But he was applauded after ridiculing the main parties for drawing up policies they have failed to implement.
“These manifestos which everyone seems to suggest are key to politics might as well be written on toilet paper,” he said.