Published: 14:15, 27 April 2017
Ukip will not field a candidate in the general election in Canterbury to bolster Sir Julian Brazier’s re-election chances.
The party – which polled third in 2015 with more than 7,000 votes – is urging its supporters to back the Tory MP, who has long-fought for Britain’s exit from the EU.
Ukip’s move comes as former Prime Minister Tony Blair and campaign group Open Britain called on pro-Remain voters to unite behind candidates who reject the so-called “hard Brexit”.
In Canterbury and Whitstable, former city councillor James Flanagan is positioning himself as the champion of the Remain side while his Liberal Democrat party has urged Labour and the Greens to withdraw.
But this week Ukip said Sir Julian’s pro-Brexit stance means it does not need to field a candidate in the constituency.
Party chairman and Herne Bay councillor Geoff Wimble said: “Sir Julian has stuck to his guns on the EU and I respect that.
“It shows that he is a man of integrity and we’ll promote Ukippers to back him.”
Cllr David Hirst, the leader of Ukip in Canterbury, added: “We will be putting country before party in ensuring a pro-brexit MP is the outcome.
“Last time we took a lot of votes from the Conservatives camp and we don’t want to do that in case there’s some sort of coalition in opposition.”
Last week Canterbury’s Green Party suggested such a coalition in the form of a single candidate standing under a “progressive alliance” to absorb support from pro-EU and left-wing voters.
Cllr Wimble has rubbished the idea. He said: “Whose agenda would you follow? It’s an awful, appalling idea.”
The Brexit debate is poised to dominate the campaign before polling day on June 8.
Sir Julian, who has held the Canterbury seat for 30 years, has welcomed the backing of Ukip.
“Of course, I’m very grateful for their support,” he said. “Brexit was an issue that divided people across the political spectrum, but I now hope we can all unite behind it to secure the best deal.”
Mr Flanagan, who polled a distant fourth in the 2015 general election, says he intends to represent the 53% of voters in the constituency who wanted Britain to remain an EU member state.
“Ukip backing Julian Brazier shows how the Conservatives have taken a right-wing extreme view on Brexit,” he said.
“Even most people who voted to leave didn’t sanction this extreme line. Canterbury and Whitstable voted 53% remain in the referendum.
“The contest in Canterbury is fast becoming one between a Ukip-backed Conservative MP who voted leave, and the Liberal Democrats who are fighting against hard Brexit.
“The Liberal Democrats are the real opposition to the Conservative government, and the only party fighting for a Britain that is open, tolerant and united – a truly progressive way forward.”
The Lib Dems are urging Labour and the Greens not to stand against Mr Flanagan.
Party chairman Nigel Whitburn said: “Canterbury will then be a clear choice between a candidate who campaigned to leave the EU, and the person described by the local press as the leading voice in the Remain campaign – James Flanagan.”
Labour has not yet announced its candidate, but it is likely to be union heavyweight Hugh Lanning, who came second to Sir Julian in 2015.
Canterbury’s Green Party has denounced the Labour and the Lib Dems as “parochial and deluded” after they declined its offer to unite behind a single left-of-centre “Progressive Alliance” candidate against Sir Julian Brazier.
Spokesman Henry Stanton said: “Party chiefs are failing to listen to their members or the people of Canterbury.
"We’ve knocked on thousands of doors and the sense of disillusionment with politics is palpable. People on the doorstep are pleading with us for a pact to happen.
“The party leaders are deluding themselves. There is a narrow parochialism and a total lack of vision about this decision. They appear to be content to play at politics, rather than realising that there is a seat in the House of Commons at stake here.
“If they would only listen to their members, they could not only realise their dream of forcing the Conservatives out, but also of getting their own MP in Westminster.”
The Greens would move to choosing their own candidate with Mr Stanton among those putting himself up for selection at its meeting on Saturday.
He added: “Canterbury has never been more united. We had a golden opportunity to change history here, but party chiefs bottled it.”