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Wed 11 December 2019
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The director of Labour for a Public Vote explains why he thinks next month’s General Election is still wide open, despite Nigel Farage’s apparent altruism towards Boris Johnson’s Tories.


Nigel Farage has decided to pull Brexit Party candidates out of Conservative-held seats in next month’s General Election. His stated reason was that Boris Johnson had made a “big shift of position” by saying that he would aim for a Canada-style free trade agreement with the EU. But, given this has been Johnson’s position for months, it is a pretty obvious smokescreen.

What is far more likely is that Farage has given in to pressure from allies who were worried that, by splitting the Leave vote, Farage was making a hung parliament, and hence a second referendum, more likely. 

However, how much difference will this make and was easing Johnson’s route into power really what motivated Farage?

The news has been full of people saying that this makes a Johnson win more likely on 12 December and that Farage has effectively thrown in the towel. In reality, neither is true. 

The only definite impact of Farage’s decision has been to make it a little bit easier for Johnson to hold on to Conservative-held seats. A good two-thirds of Brexit voters are likely to vote Conservative which will bump up Johnson’s vote share in seats he already holds. In theory, this makes it harder for opposition parties to take these seats. Realistically, the impact will be negligible. The parts of the country where the Tories are expected to lose seats – Scotland, the south west and London – are hardly Brexit Party hotspots. Johnson may have saved one or two seats at best. 

Where Farage has entirely refused to help Johnson is where he really needs it – in Labour-held seats in the Midlands and north. Johnson has known all along that winning this election was going to be an uphill battle. He has factored in that he will lose seats in Scotland, London and the south east. His calculation is that he will win enough seats in Labour heartlands both to compensate for his losses and to win enough extra seats to gain a parliamentary majority. That will involve winning some pretty unlikely seats, which means he needs every Leave vote available. In effect, Farage has given Johnson free rein in the seats he was already most likely to win, but no help at all in the seats he really needs to avoid a hung parliament. 

Even worse for Johnson, there are consequences that may make this as much of a loss as a win. While this was almost certainly a unilateral choice made by Farage, it looks like a pact between him and the Tories to the outside world. Cue adverts with Johnson in Farage’s pocket and ‘Vote Johnson, Get Farage’ attack lines. As if the Tory brand wasn’t toxic enough, it’s now toxic with added Farage. 

The Conservatives were already in danger of losing their more moderate voters because the centre of gravity of the party has moved and the moderates are no longer there. If you’re a decent One Nation Tory then you haven’t moved – the party has. That gives you permission to abandon the Tories. The fact that a vote for the Tories is now a vote for Farage will not be lost on voters and will only hasten their departure to the Lib Dems, Labour or not voting at all. 

As for Farage, he still gets to play. He can now direct all his campaign resources to the very seats that Johnson needs to win. If he increases the Brexit Party vote share at the expense of the Tories he will save Labour seats. By still fielding nearly 300 candidates he can act like a big player and use his media presence to advance his own project.

It’s not unlikely that he will use the next month to continue to attack Johnson’s Brexit deal as ‘not really Brexit’ – particularly if Johnson says anything remotely sensible on workers’ rights or trade with Europe – while at the same time toxifying the Tory brand by association. 

The response in the Conservative camp is instructive. Far from gratitude, the party has instead pressured Farage to go further, aware that its only hope is to win swathes of Labour seats. Some see him pulling out of Tory seats as merely ‘more votes going to Labour’ and his continued presence in Labour seats as ‘making it harder for them in their target seats’. Others are aghast that a vote for the Tories in a Tory seat is now also a vote for Nigel Farage. One livid Tory said that, while Farage has made himself look magnanimous, he’s actually going to cost the Tories marginal seats.  

All of this begs the question of why Farage has done it. After having spent weeks alternately threatening and then cajoling the Conservatives in the hope of a pact and a free run at some Leave seats, the Tories gave him nothing. His response, forced on him by his allies, has been to back down – but he’s only gone half way. 

Has he really done it to help Johnson, or to hurt him? On that the jury must be out.

If Farage really wanted to help Johnson he would stand down everywhere – and particularly in Labour seats in the Midlands and the north – but he’s doing the opposite. It could be that he’s holding out for a pact and a peerage. It could be that he doesn’t want to let Johnson be the saviour of Brexit. It could be that, when push comes to shove, he prefers the status quo with Brexit creating chaos but him still collecting his MEP salary and having the chance to annoy the rest of Europe with his grim speeches in the European Parliament. We may never know.

But this is not the game changer it was reported as being and this general election is still wide open. 

Mike Buckley tweets at @mdbuckley


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