26 June 2019

The Tories have no need for a pact with Nigel Farage

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Feelings are so strong about Brexit that it has come to dominate not just our political discussions, but our political identity. Traditional issues of debate between the parties have been sidelined.

At times it has reminded me of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland. In Ulster, whether you are Protestant or Roman Catholic has long been a greater determinant of voting intention than what you might think about the merits of different economic and social policies.

At the European Parliament elections allegiances to Labour and the Conservatives were swept away as voting for either party would not make a sufficiently clear statement about the issue of our membership of the EU. Labour lost a big chunk of voters to the Lib Dems. But the biggest story was the astonishing victory for the Brexit Party, which had only just been formed.

If there was an early General Election this could make for some tricky electoral arithmetic. Let us suppose that Boris Johnson becomes our Prime Minister but before we leave the European Union the Government is brought down in a motion of no confidence. Will Brexiteers punish the Conservatives for failing to deliver on the referendum by voting Brexit Party? Or will they rally behind Boris, deciding he is doing his best, and vote Conservative hoping they get back with the necessary majority to finally complete the task?

Would Remainers forgive Jeremy Corbyn’s equivocation over Brexit (not to mention his pretty unequivocal enthusiasm for Marxism) and decide a Labour government offers the best chance to ensure we stay in the EU after all? Or would millions of former Labour voters drift off to the Lib Dems?

Of course, there would be a split. Voters would go off in different directions. That is why some Conservatives have speculated on the merit of an electoral pact with the Brexit Party.

Nigel Farage has said: “We are game ready to have over 600 candidates in the field, and if Brexit is not delivered there may be some local deals here and there. We will, if the Conservative Party drop the ball on this, they are toast.”

The opinion polls currently point to us heading for a four party system. One from Opinium Research at the weekend had Labour on 26 per cent, the Brexit Party on 23 per cent, the Conservatives on 20 per cent and the Lib Dems on 16 per cent. A YouGov poll last week had the Brexit Party on 23 per cent, the Lib Dems on 21 per cent and Labour and the Conservatives each on 20 per cent.

Those who favour a deal between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives have been encouraged by another opinion poll, this one just for Conservative Party members. It found that 46 per cent of Conservative Party members would be “happy” if Nigel Farage became the Conservative leader. Large numbers of Conservative Party members quietly voted for the Brexit Party in the Euro Elections. That does suggest some blurring of the divide between the two parties.

The dilemma for Eurosceptics of vote splitting is not new. The existence of the Referendum Party in the 1997 General Election doubtless helped Tony Blair’s Labour Party to win a landslide victory on the scale they achieved. Subsequently, UKIP was a significant electoral force in certain places – though it would be wrong to assume all its votes have come from the Conservatives.

My friend Paul Bristow is as staunch a Eurosceptic as you could find. He stood in Middlesbrough South and Cleveland East in the 2010 General Election. He lost to Labour by 1,677 votes. The UKIP candidate against Paul got 1,881. In the recent Peterborough by-election Paul stood as the Conservative candidate, but Leavers were split between him and the Brexit Party. Labour narrowly won.

Amidst all this muddle there is a clear and present danger of a Labour Government. Not just any Labour Government but a Jeremy Corbyn Labour Government.

But tempting though it might be, a Brexit pact is not a realistic possibility. The Conservatives will fight every seat. If we have an early election the Brexit Party might unilaterally decide to give a few Conservative MPs a free ride – as it might some Labour MPs. I would be surprised, for instance, if Kate Hoey faces a Brexit Party opponent in Vauxhall.

Both the Conservative leadership contenders have ruled out any electoral pacts. If that pledge was to be broken those easy calculations of electoral gains would not materialise.

For a start, voters would rightly see it as opportunistic. The Conservatives brand as a mainstream and responsible party would be shattered – as for that matter would the Brexit Party’s anti-establishment street cred. Within the Conservative Party there would be a huge backlash. Some Conservatives regard Farage as an ally – for others, he is utterly toxic.

As it happens, I suspect the Conservative Party will cope pretty well without such desperate manoeuvring. If Boris Johnson is thwarted by the House of Commons from delivering Brexit then the clear message of the ensuing election campaign will be that to finally bring it about a proper Conservative majority is essential. In that scenario the Brexit Party would be more likely to gain votes – possibly even seats – from Labour. Wigan, Dudley, Stoke, Sunderland – traditional Labour territory could provide some upsets.

Furthermore, opposition MPs are by no means united in wishing to force an early election. My hunch is that the odds are against. If that is so, then Brexit will have taken place by the next election – whether as a “no deal” clean break or with some limited free trade deal with the EU. In that scenario it is hard to see what future the Brexit Party has – at least without a name change.

The upshot is that notion of an Brexit Party/Conservative electoral pact is fantasy. The good news is that it is not needed. These are volatile times. With a self-confident and determined new Prime Minister the Conservatives can bring us out of the EU. Having done so it will be able to see off the Corbyn threat whenever the subsequent General Election materialises.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist.