Familiar Ground for Farage

James Butler

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.


  • 5 November 2019 at 6:27pm
    Michael Anders says:
    So many words, so irrelevent. Who the f--k cares about Farage and the Tories, for cryin' out loud? Sorry but there's a general election campaign getting under way! There's only one way to unseat BoJo and the Tories, and that's to get the Labour vote out, as of now!!! You don't have to have great faith in Corbyn and Co, but you do have to understand what matters right now...

    • 6 November 2019 at 8:48am
      steve kay says: @ Michael Anders

      I know this is the "London" Review of books, but for some of us country cousins the ability, or indeed necessity, to vote Plaid Cymru or SNP is pretty important.

    • 7 November 2019 at 11:01am
      Reader says: @ Michael Anders
      The relevance of this is precisely to "getting the Labour vote out". What if you are constantly faced on the doorstep with questions about Labour policy on Brexit? The policy that Corbyn adopted - eventually - may be in rational terms a good compromise, but it risks alienating traditional Labour voters on both sides of the Brexit argument. I know, because I've spoken to some of them. Some will vote for one of the two Brexit parties, and some for the LibDems.

      Understanding what is going on with Farage and Johnson is highly relevant to speaking with potential Labour voters and persuading them to support the party. The article is useful in this respect.

    • 7 November 2019 at 12:59pm
      Joe Morison says: @ Michael Anders
      There is only one way to defeat Johnson’s Tories, and that’s to drop the ideological commitment to a single party and vote tactically.

  • 5 November 2019 at 6:43pm
    Ken Davies says:
    Apparently a lot of people who paid money to be candidates discovered that Farage's favourites had been parachuted in, instead of locals.

  • 5 November 2019 at 7:05pm
    Timothy Rogers says:
    The indicated split between Farage and Johnson raises an interesting question about the dilemma this might pose for our own (American) Big Buffoon. Trump has tweeted effusive praise for both men over the last couple of years. Not that he could read or understand any political analysis written in terms that will not confirm his black-and-white views of the world. I hope he doesn't chip in on the upcoming parliamentary campaign, but one never knows with him - he might hear a "factoid" on Fox and feel impelled to comment. And I hope that British voters evaluate any remarks he makes as totally irrelevant.

  • 5 November 2019 at 11:52pm
    Graucho says:
    There is one and only one thing that I agree with Mr Farage about which is that Michel Barnier is a really good and effective negotiator and it's a shame that he isn't on our side of the table. The way that May and her civil servants handled the whole process left me apoplectic.

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