And Whitehall insiders fear costs could soar even higher if MPs fail to back a departure deal by the end of next month to prevent Britain’s new MEPs taking their seats in the European Parliament. Taxpayers will be forced to start funding their salaries and expenses unless MPs and peers back an EU withdrawal agreement by June 30. Furious Brexiteers and low-tax campaigners savaged the May 23 elections yesterday, while Prime Minister Theresa May acknowledged public “frustration” at the situation forced by the Brexit delay.
Tory backbencher Maria Caulfield said: “These elections are not only a huge waste of money that could be better spent elsewhere but also a huge failure for the Government when we should have already left the EU.”
Furious Fellow MP Peter Bone said: “It’s a complete waste of public money because there is absolutely no need for these elections and it should be spent on things people care about, whether that’s operations in hospitals or more police on the streets.”
Tory MP Craig Mackinlay described the situation as “beyond parody” and “a shameful state of affairs”, while former minister Tom Pursglove added: “There’s no getting away from the fact we could have left [the EU] by now.
“People will be furious being asked to vote in elections they never wanted and which shouldn’t be on.”
John O’Connell of the TaxPayers’ Alliance said people would be “baffled at being billed for yet more trips to the ballot box”.
Mrs May’s spokesman said she “deeply regrets that we haven’t left the EU on time” and “the consequence of that is we will have to take part in the European elections”.
The spokesman added: “She understands that many members of the public will feel frustration at this. We now wish to see the withdrawal agreement introduced and ratified by Parliament as soon as possible and ideally before MEPs take their seats.”
Whitehall insiders estimate elections for the UK’s 73 European Parliament seats will cost significantly more than the £108million spent on the last poll in 2014 when the ballot was held on the same day as local authority voting to save money.
Officials are understood to have estimated this year’s cost to be “around £150million”, expected to include about £96million for officers and other staff and a further £50million for posting polling cards and information.
It also includes around £4.5million for refunding candidates’ deposits if the UK leaves the EU before MEPs get a chance to take up their seats on July 2 – a government source conceded that hitting that deadline was “very tight”.
Even if a Brexit deal is passed before Parliament breaks up for the summer, as ministers hope, MEPs will sit for at least three weeks and are entitled to receive salaries, expenses and staff and office costs.
Mr Lidington, effectively Mrs May’s deputy, confirmed what has become Westminster’s worst-kept secret yesterday when he signalled the Euro elections would go ahead.
He said: “Parliament has had several occasions to vote on leaving the European Union.
“So far, every time there has been a majority against leaving with any particularly orderly deal, so we are engaged as a government in talks with the opposition and with others across Parliament to try and find a way forward that has maximum possible support amongst politicians of all political parties.
“But what this now means, given how little time there is, is that it is regrettably not going to be possible to finish that process before the date that is legally due for European parliamentary elections.
“We very much hoped that we would be able to get our exit sorted and have the treaty concluded so that those elections did not have to take place.
“But legally, they do have to take place – unless our withdrawal has been given legal effect – so those will now go ahead.”
Mr Lidington’s Tory negotiating team continued to try to thrash out a Brexit compromise with Labour frontbenchers last night.
Sources close to the talks said the negotiations were reaching the stage where the teams had to make a realistic assessment about whether a deal could be done.
If agreement looks impossible, the teams will turn to a “Plan B” alternative involving giving MPs a range of Brexit options in a series of Commons votes.
Officials said last week’s local election results, which saw the Tories lose more than 1,300 seats and Labour more than 100, had given fresh “impetus” to the search for a solution.
Mrs May’s spokesman said there was, among Cabinet ministers, “a broad understanding that there is a need to get on with this”.