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  1. ITV Report

European Parliament elections likely to be 'ultimate protest vote'

The Government has admitted that the upcoming European Parliament elections will likely be "the ultimate protest vote" over Brexit.

Education Secretary Damian Hinds said he believes the elections will be difficult for the Conservatives and that "for some people this is the second referendum".

Almost three years after the European Union referendum vote, and with the UK still in the EU, it is thought that the Conservatives could face a backlash from voters over the perceived failure to leave the bloc with or without a deal.

ITV News Political Correspondent Paul Brand said Mr Hinds' comments show that the Conservatives are "spinning" the European Parliament elections "as a protest vote about Brexit, rather than a sophisticated vote about the merits of various parties".

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Speaking on The Andrew Marr Show, Mr Hinds also said there will be no formal Tory launch for the European elections, and that the party's manifesto is to leave the EU with a negotiated deal.

"I'm not sure we need a launch," Mr Hinds told the BBC programme.

"We have been very clear about the outcome we want.

"We don't actually want MEPs to take up their seats - we want people to vote Conservative but we don't want them to have to take their seats."

The UK will head to the polls on May 23 to elect its 73 MEPs to the European Parliament.

Theresa May had wanted to lead Britain out of the EU before the bloc's elections, but Brexit remains on hold amid political deadlock.

In a bid to break the impasse, cross-party talks will continue on Monday.

Paul Brand said Downing Street is insisting that the ball is in Labour's court and they are waiting for a response.

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The affirmation that talks will continue come just hours after former defence secretary Gavin Williamson called them a “grave mistake”.

Mr Williamson, who was sacked over the Huawei leak, said pressing ahead with the talks will have “fatal” consequences and it will all "end in tears".

Writing in the Mail on Sunday, he labelled Mrs May as “politically naive” for going into fruitless negotiations which he claimed were bound to fail.

The Tory MP for South Staffordshire said doing a deal with Labour on Brexit “sounds so simple and so reasonable, but it is destined to fail”.

Former defence secretary Gavin Williamson said the Brexit talks with Labour are a 'grave mistake'. Credit: PA

However, Mr Hinds defended Mrs May's strategy, asking: "What's the alternative?"

"We have to find a way through and that means we have to have a majority...

"I think she's done a remarkable job and no other person in her position would be able to change the parliamentary reality."

Mr Hinds said he believed Labour was negotiating "in good faith" and said, even if talks broke down, there was the plan B of indicative votes.

However, speaking to ITV News, shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth appeared to pour cold water on Mr Hinds' optimism, saying taks were "not getting very far, because it's very difficult to negotiate with someone who's on their way out".

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Yet, if a deal were to be reached, Brand adds that it is "not impossible" that MPs could be asked to vote on a negotiated deal on Thursday, ahead of the Prime Minister's meeting with the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbench politicians.

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As Mrs May comes under increasing pressure to deliver a Brexit deal, she is also facing demands to give a clear timetable for her departure.

Previously the Maidenhead MP has said she will step down as Prime Minister once the first phase of Brexit negotiations are over - once a deal has been agreed on by the EU, and then voted through Parliament.

Yet with Brexit negotiations still up in the air, so is Mrs May's position, much to the chagrin of many Tory MPs who would like to see her announce a timetable for her departure, following what they perceive to be an inability to deliver Brexit, and an unsuccessful outcome at the local elections, which saw more than 1,200 Conservative councillors lose their seats.

Prime Minister Theresa May is coming under increasing pressure to announce a timetable for her departure. Credit: PA

On Thursday, Mrs May will meet members of the influential 1922 Committee to discuss her departure, and should the Tories fare badly in the EU elections, her exit may be brought forward.

Paul Brand reports that the meeting will be a "make or break" moment for Mrs May, and if she refuses to step down then the Committee "is likely to take an immediate vote on whether to change leadership rules to try again to force her out".

While a previous vote by senior Tory MPs on the executive of the 1922 Committee rejected calls for changes to the party's rules to allow a no-confidence vote in the Prime Minister in the coming weeks, Brand reports that numbers could alter, leading to enough votes for a rule change, because many believe Mrs May "has to go".

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While concerns grow over how the Tories will fare in the EU elections, support continues to build for Nigel Farage's new Brexit Party whose one policy is to leave the EU without a deal.

European Parliament elections were never supposed to happen, Brand says, so if voters get a "free hit" they are going to use it, meaning a protest vote is looking more and more likely and the former Ukip leader taps into the frustration of leave voters.

Speaking to ITV News, Mr Farage said: "We should have left on March 29, everybody promised us that we would.

"500 MPs voted for us to leave on that day with or without a deal.

"We've been let down dreadfully and people are really angry out there.

"They're angry the referendum result has not been carried out, but they're even angrier that politicians' promises to them have been broken."