The big news from yesterday is that Nigel Farage will be standing down Brexit party candidates in all 317 seats the Conservatives won in the 2017 general election. Put aside the oddness of this criteria – the Brexit party won’t be standing in Anna Soubry’s seat, who is no longer a Tory MP and a seat where the Tory PPC voted Remain in 2016 – and let’s get down to the real question. Is this is a good or bad thing for the Tories?
The answer that some of you will have immediately is: well, duh, of course it’s good for the Conservative party. The Leave vote is no longer split in almost half the seats, making them much easier for the Tories to hold onto. All of those Tory-held seats the Lib Dems are targeting just got much harder for the yellows to take now that BXP won’t be taking Tory votes away, right? I’m not so sure.
The question no one will be able to answer until the election result tells us is: does the advantage given to the Tories in these seats by having the Brexit party not around to take away votes outweigh the advantage given to the Remain parties (and Labour for that matter) now that Farage and Johnson have seemingly coming to an election pact? I think people are underpricing the latter for the moment.
Remember that it has been Tory orthodoxy for some time that doing any sort of deal with the Brexit party would be electorally dicey for the Conservatives. And before you say “But they haven’t done an official pact”, spare me. Whatever the reality, no one is going to believe this hasn’t been fixed up between the two parties behind closed doors. It might as well be an open pact.
I have been bleating on for a while that the Lib Dems need to attack Boris’ deal in this campaign. Yet the Farage-Johnson pact idea does the same thing in a more powerful way – and the Lib Dems have jumped on it right away as well. They know that a lot of voters they are trying to sway are Tory voters who are either outright Remainers or who at the very least are uncomfortable with the direction of travel the governing party has chosen. Johnson getting into bed with Farage is a valuable marketing tool for the Lib Dems. How valuable we will soon see. One thing that could have galvanised these Tory-Lib swing voters to vote Tory was the idea that by doing so they would have been voting against the Brexit party, Leave-extremists who had taken against Johnson’s supposedly rational plan. It made Johnson’s plan seem the saner of the Leave possibilities. Now it is all the same Brexity pie; a Tory vote no longer has the same advantage of being the more sensible Brexit vote compared with something else.
It is also worth noting that it is the one thing to happen in the election campaign that has got Labour and the Lib Dems to stop fighting and sing from the same hymn sheet. Labour want to avoid talking about Brexit as much as possible – but they won’t resist the chance to use Farage teaming up with Johnson as a marketing tool in Lab-Tory marginals. “Look at what the Tories are,’ they can say. ‘A vote for them is a vote for Farage, which is pretty much a vote for Trump.’ It solidifies an attack that wasn’t very solid before this arrangement at all.
Finally, I wonder how much removing the Brexit party from Tory-Lib marginals really hurts the Lib Dems as much as many pundits think. When I was phone canvassing for the Lib Dems in 2015, I was shocked at how many ex-Lib Dem voters from 2010 said they would be voting UKIP this time round. UKIP had become the “none of the above” candidate in all of these seats, taking votes off the Lib Dems, allowing the Tories to re-take them. Some of those who were going to vote BXP might vote Lib Dems now that they are the most anti-establishment party. In other words, if you just want to put one in the eye of the government, the Lib Dems are now the party to do that with in all of these seats. Some of you will think this is crazy; that Remain and Leave have become immutable identities for all voters. I think it’s a lot more fluid than that.
Again, time will tell whether having the advantage of BXP candidates not taking votes off of them in seats they are defending will help the Tories – or if the association between Farage, Trump and Johnson helps the Tories’ opponents in these same seats. I just wouldn’t be so sure that the help it will give them is more powerful than the hurt.