An embattled Nigel Farage has hit out at the three MEPs who dramatically abandoned his Brexit party just seven days before polling day.
Annunziata Rees-Mogg – sister of the Commons leader, Jacob Rees-Mogg – Lance Forman and Lucy Harris all resigned the whip to back Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal on Thursday.
Farage, whose party is languishing at just 3% in the polls, used a BBC interview with Andrew Neil to dismiss Rees-Mogg’s claim that the leave vote was being split across the country.
He said: “She doesn’t understand what is happening in the Labour seats in which we are standing.”
He said the Brexit party was up 17 points in the Labour marginal Great Grimsby, according to a new poll, while Labour was down 18 points with no shift in the Conservative vote.
He said: “In Grimsby the Conservatives, because of what we’ve done, will probably win.”
He countered by arguing it was the Tories, by contesting constituencies such as Doncaster, Barnsley and Hartlepool, where he said voters were “unlikely” to go blue, that were guilty of splitting the leave vote.
During the Neil interview it was also put to Farage that three candidates had been found to have made anti-Muslim comments, including one calling Islam a “child rapist death cult”. Farage insisted if “idiots had slipped through the net” they would be sacked. Neil pointed out at that all of their names were still on election ballot papers.
The news that the MPs were quitting the party will be a blow to Farage, whose poor poll showing comes despite winning the largest number of seats in the European elections.
It also follows the decision on Wednesday to sack the MEP John Longworth, the former director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, for “repeatedly undermining” Farage’s election strategy.
At a press conference in Westminster on Thursday morning, the four MEPs said they were leaving because it had become clear their party was splitting the Brexit vote in key marginals and, as such, putting the campaign to leave the EU at risk.
Rees-Mogg said: “We need a strong leave-supporting government to deliver the Brexit 17.4 million voted for. The Conservatives are the only option for Brexit supporters and democrats alike.”
Unhappiness among the MEPs started to emerge on Wednesday when Longworth, the chair of the Leave Means Leave campaign group, lost the whip for “disloyalty” to the party.
He was at odds with the party over election strategy, suggesting it should go after 20-30 carefully selected seats and not stand in 274 Labour ones.
Earlier in the campaign Farage had decided to withdraw from 317 Tory-held seats to avoid splitting the vote. He said he had not been given credit by the four MEPs for this decision to try to help the Tories.
Farage said: “The only vote on the leave side that is currently being split is in areas such as Barnsley, the south Wales valleys, Doncaster and Hartlepool, where there is a risk that the Tories will split our vote.”
A spokesman for the Brexit party said three of the MEPs already had strong links to the Tories, while Longworth had suddenly come round to Johnson’s Brexit plans despite being a long-time advocate of leaving the EU on World Trade Organization (WTO) terms. He suggested the Tories might reward Longworth at a later date for his backing.
The spokesman said: “We also note that one of the MEPs is the sister of a cabinet minister, another has a partner who works in the office of the same cabinet minister and yet another is a personal friend of both Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
“In the case of John Longworth, who was for years the firmest advocate of WTO withdrawal that we have ever met, he underwent a metamorphosis into being a supporter of the new EU treaty following two days of meetings in London. We hope that Mr Longworth is well rewarded for his actions.”
A Brexit party spokesman turned up to a press conference organised by the four MEPs and spoke to journalists outside. He said the Conservatives had been seeking to bribe Brexit party candidates to stand down for weeks and suggested that was what had happened in the case of the four MEPs.
However, the MEPs said they had not had contact with the Conservative party. “The first [the Conservatives] heard about it, was when [the media] heard about it,” said Forman.
Rees-Mogg said she found it “disturbingly old-fashioned” that people were suggesting her brother was able to dictate her political views. “He doesn’t,” she said. “We have completely independent views of each other. I am only concerned about Brexit.”
She later said: “It is clear to me that the Brexit party is splitting the vote of leavers in marginal and not-so-marginal constituencies. If you look at the likes of Lincoln, of Gedling, of Sedgefield, of Hartlepool, of High Peak, Weaver Vale, Gower, Bolton East, the list goes on and on.
“In Scotland, Wales and England the Brexit party are permitting votes to go away from the Conservatives, providing us with a remain coalition that will do anything not to honour the Brexit referendum.”