Boris Johnson got a big break yesterday when Nigel Farage announced that the Brexit Party would not contest any of the 317 seats currently held by Tories.
This move was a significant climbdown from Farage’s clearly loopy demand that Johnson renounce his own Brexit deal, particularly since Farage got nothing in return (or at least of an official nature, who know what private threats and entreaties were made). There is every reason to think that this is what is appears to be, a free concession made by Farage, likely as a result of the fact that the Brexit Party was losing support.
But, if Farage – as he insists – is acting to stave off a Corbyn victory – then once again he has failed to think it through. It is not the seats which the Tories won in the last election that count. With or without Farage’s intervention, Johnson will probably win most of these anyway.
More importantly, there are the Labour marginals, which the Tories must secure in the coming election if Johnson is to secure a working majority. Yet Farage intends to front canadiates in all of these seats.
If we use the Ukip results in the 2015 general election as an indicator of the Farage Party performance, we can see that his candidates could still do serious damage to Johnson’s electoral prospects.
For instance, in England, the most vulnerable target seat is Kensington where Labour has a majority of 20 over the Conservatives. Ukip didn’t stand in 2017 but it took 1,557 votes in the 2015 election. That level carried over to 12 December could make the difference between victory and defeat, especially as the Lib-Dems are also eroding the vote of the leading pair, without taking enough to win the seat.
Next in line is Dudley North with a Labour majority of 22. In 2017, Ukip did stand and took 2,144 votes. But in 2015, it took a whopping 9,113 votes. Using that as a comparator, the Brexit Party would almost certainly give the seat to Labour this time round.
Newcastle-under-Lyme is another vulnerable seat, currently held by Labour with a majority of 30. The Tories have been pushing hard in this seat but were deprived victory in 2015 when Ukip took 7,252 votes. The party didn’t stand in 2017 but if the Brexit Party takes over in 2019, it could again keep the seat in Labour hands.
North goes through quite a few more districts with granular details. Consistent with his take, The Sun and The Times both have reports of Tories urging Farage to pull out of even more districts. The Financial Times goes as far as to suggest that Farage hints at broader retreat after ditching battle for Tory seats when it seems they are reading quite a lot into an ambiguous remark:
But Mr Farage refused to deny that he could further help Mr Johnson by standing down Brexit party candidates in Labour seats. “I’ve not considered this at this moment in time,” he said. “But there isn’t much time.”
Oddly, the pink paper did not report on Farage’s professed reason for his big course change: to prevent a second referendum. One wonder if the plunge in Brexit Party popularity also meant he’d have trouble stumping up enough funds and candidates to contest 650 seats.
The Guardian, in a snap analysis, said it expected the Tories and Brexit Party to come to an agreement:
Second, the Brexit party still seems to be intent on standing candidates in Tory target seats – particularly the leave-leaning Labour seats in the north of England, where for a long time Farage has been saying his party could do well. In theory the Brexit party could still split the Brexit vote in these place, preventing Boris Johnson from making the gains he needs to win a majority. But it wouldn’t be in Farage’s interests to do this if he wants Johnson to have a majority, and so it seems more likely that, in reality, the Tories and the Brexit party will operate unofficial non-aggression pacts in these places, allowing the best placed party to challenge Labour. That would be what you would expect from a “leave alliance”, which is what he now says exists.
Ian Dunt argued that this development could rally the opposition (IMHO, this is a tad optimistic):
Farage and Johnson are now joined at the hip. That's a strategic problem but also an opportunity. Hard to think of two figures who could inspire more opponents to fight them.
— Ian Dunt (@IanDunt) November 11, 2019
Perhaps I have too simplistic a view, but Farage’s personal incentives would be to keep Brexit in play, since that would give him a betrayal narrative he could milk for years. However, it also looks as if he’s found out that opposing Boris’ deal, which is what his former position plus running in all 650 seats amounted to, is too costly in terms of the prospect of the Brexit Party having any future.
So my take is that the defect that North and the Tories quickly identified, that the Brexit Party could still deny the Tories a majority, is no accident. Farage may be willing to risk being a spoiler if he can manage his affairs so as not to be blamed (much) if Johnson loses. So he may be playing the gambler just as Johnson has, seeing how the polls and media reactions shake out before he decides whether to do anything more.
Moreover, Farage has likely noticed Labour and the LibDems are at odds on Brexit and a lot of other things. So if the Tories lost, and the opposition parties, after some catfights, formed a coalition, it would be very hard for them to much of anything. Corbyn wants his Brexit deal and a confirmatory referendum, while the LibDems want a straight up referendum. Would Farage wager on Corbyn being unable to get a deal approved? Or would he perceive that more splintering of UK politics does not favor Brexit?
In other words, while the odds favor Farage continuing to retreat, it is far from a slam dunk.
Finally, consider this poll, admittedly before the Farage concession:
Current Polling Compared to This Time in the 2017 Campaign:
CON: 38.5% (-8.6)
LAB: 28.4% (-0.1)
LDM: 15.9% (+6.5)
BXP: 8.9% (+2.5)*
GRN: 3.7% (+0.7)
*Changes w/ UKIP vote share. pic.twitter.com/QQw4v1UuwC
— Election Maps UK (@ElectionMapsUK) November 11, 2019