‘Nice one, Nigel’

James Butler

Nigel Farage announced last night that the Brexit Party would stand down its candidates in 317 Tory-held seats across the country, promising instead to concentrate his fire on Leave-voting seats with Labour incumbents. Having last week lambasted Boris Johnson’s deal as the ‘second-worst in history’, he now claims to be satisfied with the prime minister’s commitment to leaving on 31 January, and seeking a Canada-style free trade agreement. However he tries to disguise it, this is a capitulation: there had been enormous pressure on Farage from senior colleagues – including the Brexit Party chair and candidate for Hartlepool, Richard Tice – to moderate his opposition to the Tory deal. Farage has found a Surrender Act all of his own.

It may look like a boon for the Conservatives, effectively creating a pro-Brexit alliance, reinforcing the Tory lead and perhaps guaranteeing Johnson an outright majority. As yet, though, Farage’s party has only stood down in seats already held by the Tories: a relief for incumbents – such as Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford, where Ukip got 12 per cent of the vote in 2015 – who feared the Brexit Party would split their vote against a strong opposition candidate, but less help to Tory challengers. Farage still seems to believe that the Brexit Party – now with a more concentrated campaign – may dethrone Labour incumbents in parts of the Midlands and the North. In Labour/Tory marginals, however, it seems likely that Farage and Johnson will be competing for the same voters; and, as in the Peterborough by-election earlier this year, that might provide succour to Labour candidates. There was a lukewarm response to Farage’s capitulation in the right-wing press this morning: ‘Nice one, Nigel,’ the Mail said, ‘but it’s still not enough.’

Earlier this week, Arron Banks tweeted with some relish that ‘secret’ negotiations between Farage and Johnson were being conducted through a middleman, but yesterday’s détente at least appeared unilateral. CCHQ knows that explicit agreements between Johnson and Farage would be politically toxic; even yesterday’s limited endorsement is likely to drive away more liberal voters in Tory/Lib Dem marginals. If Labour activists in Brexit Party targets – Hartlepool, Sedgefield, Barnsley – were grimacing yesterday, at a national level the party knows its target: sharing clips of Trump enthusing over the prospect of a Farage-Johnson lash-up, they intend to link the Tories to a predatory US with its eyes on the NHS. Their hope is that the Brexit alliance speeds up a repolarisation of the electorate, in which the only substantive choice is between a Labour government and a Tory administration in hock to Faragism and beggared by Trump Inc.

Farage’s move may please Brexit Party grandees, but the rank and file – including a number of candidates – are less happy. Some have suggested they may stand for Ukip, though it will be something of a scrabble with the nomination deadline on Thursday – and The Brexit Party Ltd retaining the money they donated to become candidates. It’s difficult to gauge the feeling of prospective Brexit Party voters, but it’s certainly possible that a sizeable chunk will simply stay away from the polls. If the party’s polling craters further, pressure will redouble for its candidates simply to endorse the Tories in Labour/Conservative marginals. But Farage’s ideal scenario, for now, is a hung parliament in which a small group of Brexit Party MPs deploy DUP/ERG-style tactics to pin Johnson to the hardest possible Brexit.

The détente itself ought to prompt broadcasters to bump the Faragists down the schedules: they are now decidedly a minority party, not a national one. Whatever their fate, though, Farage himself will be fine. He has learned from the American far right that standing for office isn’t the only – or even the most effective – means of influencing the political debate. As he put it in a recent New Statesman interview, ‘more of them are on telly, their radio shows, their blogs, podcasts, all the rest of it.’

Both Farage and Johnson deny any deal between them. But even without an alliance on paper, there’s certainly an alliance in the papers, on the issues: Michael Gove’s attack on Labour over free movement in yesterday’s Times, including its scaremongering over ‘foreign criminals’, could have been drawn from Farage’s interventions in the referendum campaign. The Tory candidate in South Cambridgeshire, Anthony Browne, advised Johnson when he was mayor of London. Browne has written of ‘thousands of infected immigrants’ plaguing the country, argued that multiculturalism brings ‘utter devastation and ruinous conflict’ to Britain, and excused institutional police violence as ‘a consequence of being a multi-racial society’. Who needs a formal alliance?