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Are EU at home? Former Belgian PM backs the Lib Dems on election trail

Battle to win 'remain vote' ahead of next week's European elections

16 May, 2019 — By Richard Osley

Guy Verhlofstadt is mobbed by press in Camden Town

THE fight to be seen as the ‘remainer’s option’ at this month’s European elections was ratcheted up a notch on Friday when former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt arrived for a campaign set-piece in Camden Town and declared the Liberal Democrats to be the most pro-Europe party.

A scrum of photographers and TV cameras followed him shaking hands with Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable in Camden Square, before meeting activists on a pre-arranged single-door canvass.

Mr Verhofstadt, a celebrity politician in the Brexit drama on the continent where he is known for his snappy criticism of how the UK has reached the brink of its divorce from Europe, said: “We want to be the alternative for nationalism and popularism. What I think is, there will be a huge support for remain.”

Asked by one journalist whether his appearance in Camden Town was foreign intervention in a poll over who would represent London, he added: “Your question tells us what we are fighting against. We are fighting nationalism. We are patriotic people in our different countries, but we are fighting nationalism.”

Recent local election results elsewhere in the country, which saw the Tories and Labour lose council seats, and the upcoming polls to elect new MEPs on May 23 has left Lib Dems believing they are on the brink of a big win.

The party has not generated as much media interest in Camden since the days of “Cleggomania” in 2010, and set up their event on Friday – complete with trademark “winning here” diamond placards – in Labour territory; the Camden Square gardens are in Cantelowes, a ward that the Lib Dems haven’t won for the best part of a decade.

Among those people living in Camden who took part in the EU referendum in 2016, around three-quarters voted to remain in the union.

Amid a plea to Stop Brexit, Lib Dems are hoping to seduce Labour and Tory supporters who are pro-Europe to side with them. They face competition from other sources, however, including the Green Party, who are also looking to establish themselves as a haven for fed-up remainers.

Cllr Luisa Porritt with Sir Vince Cable

Lib Dem councillor Luisa Porritt, who is standing as a candidate for the European parliament under the list system of voting, was brought to the front of the photocall.

“We think it’s very important that everybody who voted remain first of all turns out, but then also gets behind us, so we don’t split the vote and so we send a strong message. Because actually it’s not about competing with remain parties, it’s about making sure that [Brexit Party leader] Nigel Farage does not win this election,” she said. “We’ve got the history behind us – we’ve been a pro-European party for 50 years.”

The media mob followed Sir Vince and Mr Verhofstadt, the leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, to a home in Camden Square, with photographers clambering over garden walls to get their shot.

One driver went past and asked if Jeremy Corbyn was in the middle of the pack.

The property’s owner was housing developer Marc Vlessing, who has worked with both Boris Johnson and Sadiq Khan during their time as Mayor of London to provide “pocket-sized” homes for the so-called Generation Rent.

He told journalists that he was not a Lib Dem member or activist, but had been warned he would get a knock on the door. The scale of the media presence – likened to a famous scene in the film Notting Hill when paparazzi surrounded a single doorstep – however, came as a surprise.

Cllr Porritt added: “I think in both cases, in the Greens and Change UK, we’ve said it’s a great shame that we haven’t been able to work together at these elections. It would have made sense to do that, and not risk splitting the remain vote – and we still regret that, but ultimately we are a very organised party, our local election results show that, and I think that will pay off for us in these elections as well. There’s no Brexit that is going to be good for this country.”

Lib Dem activists in Camden Square

Green Party councillor Sian Berry, the party’s national co-leader who pushed the Lib Dems back into fourth when she stood in the last mayoral elections in London, said: “Our record on standing up for staying in the EU and a People’s Vote is stronger than the Lib Dems. From July 2016 Caroline Lucas was not only calling for a confirmation vote on whatever final deal came through, but also listening to people about the austerity and problems that led to Brexit. Greens have shown we can win – we already have a Green MEP for London, and you don’t have to settle for second best and vote for anyone else.”

Labour activists were out canvassing this week with some of the London candidates but the party is facing more calls to clarify what its stance on the Brexit negotiations is – before people head to the polling stations. Holborn and St Pancras MP Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, said he believed around 150 Labour MPs would not support a cross-party Brexit deal unless it was put to a public vote – a major hurdle to getting through the House of Commons.

In a letter to the New Journal, Hampstead and Kilburn MP Tulip Siddiq, who has broken the party whip previously opposing Brexit, appealed for her constituents to vote Labour, insisting that they were the “loudest and most positive voice in Europe”.

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