Familiar Ground for Farage
The Brexit Party launched its general election campaign in Westminster yesterday. There had been much talk that a pact – formal or tacit – between the Conservatives and Farage’s vehicle might emerge, handing them a swathe of leave-voting seats in England. Instead, Farage, speaking from the rostrum to an audience of Brexit Party candidates and registered supporters, lambasted the Tories’ ‘conceited arrogance’, mocked the ERG for falling in like ‘good little boys’ behind their leader, and lambasted Johnson’s deal for taking the UK into ‘three more years of agonising negotiations with Michel Barnier’. These are not words from which rapprochement is made. Farage himself is not standing – seven Westminster defeats perhaps enough – but intends to campaign across the country.
Farage made Johnson an offer he knew he could not accept: to junk his deal and leave on WTO terms, and form an electoral pact in the next ten days. Such a pact would represent a substantial political injury for the prime minister. Farage’s proposal is intended less as a serious offer to the Tories than as a way of laying the foundations for the Brexit Party’s continued existence after 12 December. This is familiar ground for Farage: a position to the right of the main pole of conservatism, where he can act as a lodestar for the Tory hard right, and use that leverage to extract concessions from the Conservative leadership. The relation of any actual Brexit deal to Farage’s ideal Brexit will always be asymptotic: however small the gap between them, there will be enough for Farage to holler about.
This strategy of confrontation and leverage – Farage also used it in Ukip’s heyday – is not necessarily shared by the rest of the Brexit Party cabal. Richard Tice, the party chairman, took to the airwaves more sinuously than Farage yesterday, trying to woo the Tory leadership into further negotiation. There are also rumblings of disquiet among some of the party’s candidates: John Longworth, one of the party’s MEPs, has implored the leadership to concentrate on winning twenty to thirty seats in leave-voting Labour constituencies; Paul Brothwood, the candidate in Dudley South, has stood down to endorse the pro-Brexit Tory in that marginal seat. Yet the ‘party’ lacks any internal democracy; its ‘supporters’ are financial donors – slips for ‘The Brexit Club’ of donors circulated at the launch – and decisions remain largely in Farage’s hands.
Labour Party strategists greeted the party’s 600-plus seat strategy with cautious optimism: ballots split between Conservative and Brexit Party candidates, combined with an aggressive, membership-led campaign, allowed Labour to defend Peterborough in June’s by-election. The Brexit Party leadership, however, is united in claiming its chief targets are Labour-held seats. Farage says there are at least five million Labour-voting leavers, and bragged of his ability to convert Labour voters to Ukip in the 2015 election. His estimate is too high – the number is somewhere between three and four million – and though it has entered folk wisdom that Ukip damaged Labour more than the Tories in 2015, recent work drawing on the British Electoral Survey suggests that the chief competitors for Ukip votes, and beneficiaries of their 2017 collapse, were disproportionately Conservative.
The Brexit Party is not Ukip, however, and heuristics drawn from previous elections are barely adequate rules of thumb for the current, extremely volatile period. At its rallies, the Brexit Party has already offered – for a donation, naturally – the chance for supporters to sit down with local parliamentary candidates, and lobby them in private; in places that have suffered high-handed Labour councils or feckless MPs, this could prove powerful. The heterodox programme advocated by Tice – electoral reform, £200 billion of investment outside London, political supervision of the judiciary – suggests that some of the leadership are thinking beyond Brexit, though the programme is perhaps insufficiently Faragist to gain the guru’s imprimatur.
In any case it implies uncertainty at the top of the party over whether it should primarily be an electoral pressure group to nail the right to a hard Brexit, or try to consolidate a new constituency, Eurosceptic but otherwise ambivalent about Farage’s ultra-Thatcherite politics. Even with a nationwide offering of candidates, the Brexit Party may still concentrate on Labour-held seats. Concerns over sovereignty and self-determination are not mere ciphers for economic distress, but many pro-Brexit voters are moved by Britain’s lopsided economy and infrastructural rot – and a powerful offer on those questions from Labour could rebuff the Brexit Party’s advances.