Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, has revealed he will not field candidates in any of the seats currently held by the Conservative Party (or won by them in 2017) in next month’s general election – but what will this mean come polling day?
Farage has vowed instead to “take the fight to Labour”, which could provide a boost for the Conservatives in the seats they are trying to hold. But it could also spell trouble for the seats the Tories want to win.
He also said that his move to stand down Brexit party candidates in Tory-held seats heralded the creation of a Leave alliance – which he hopes will rival the Remain alliance – a cooperation between three parties, Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru, in 60 seats in England and Wales.
As part of the Remain alliance, the three parties have all agreed not to stand candidates against each other. Instead they will all support one anti-Brexit candidate drawn from one of their parties in each constituency. The Liberal Democrats have also agreed to stand down in a handful of special cases, such as Broxtowe where Anna Soubry, leader of the Independent Group for Change, hopes to hold her seat. And the Green parties (in England and Wales and Scotland) have agreed to stand down in a handful of seats to benefit Labour and the SNP.
But there’s a difference, of course, between a negotiated (Remain) alliance and what looks like a unilaterial move by the Brexit Party (Leave alliance) – and time will tell whether there are any reciprocal moves by the Conservatives or any involvement of UKIP.
How will this impact the Conservatives?
Electoral deals, unilateral standing aside and tactical voting seem to have become the hallmark of this election campaign so far. And, if the assumption that in the absence of a Brexit party, or of UKIP, supporters will tend to vote Conservative holds, then this is both good and bad news for the Tories. Because although it may help some defences, it undermines Johnson’s team in their attack seats. And it may not do wonders for its brand in other areas.
Let’s say, for example, you are the Conservative candidate in Twickenham, a marginal seat held by the Lib Dems. You may well lose votes to the Brexit party at a time when the Lib Dems have fewer competitors because of the Remain alliance. Then let’s say you are the Conservative candidate taking over in Putney, an area with a large Remain vote and a previously Remain MP in Justine Greening. Will it help to be associated with the Brexit Party?
What about the Remain alliance?
With a smaller field to worry about in those Tory held, Remain alliance seats, those parties campaigning on a strong anti-Brexit message can now use a clear attack on Conservative candidates – whoever they are. As every Tory candidate can now be tarred with the Brexit brush.
Chuka Umunna, Liberal Democrat candidate for Cities of London and Westminster was quick off the block with his tweet:
Umunna may not be in a Remain alliance seat, but he knows the message to use.
Green Party candidate Caroline Lucas, whose Brighton Pavilion seat is included in the Remain alliance list, had this to say:
Possibly though, the best way of examining the likely effect is to find a seat now affected by the Remain alliance arrangements and the Brexit Party stand down at the same time. One such seat is Southport. In Southport the Remain alliance candidate is the Lib Dem. It’s a very closely fought seat, that changed hands last time and in which Labour has become stronger. Historically this seaside area has tended to be either Lib Dem or Conservative. Lib Dem John Pugh stood down ahead of 2017 when the Conservatives took it back. At this same election Labour moved into second place. This in turn means quite some argument about who is better placed to stop a Tory hold.
It’s also a seat in which a UKIP candidate got more than 1,000 votes in 2017 and stood candidates in this year’s local elections– at a time when many areas didn’t have a UKIP representative. No UKIP candidate was successful here, but the commitment and organisation to field candidates should not be written off. Defending Conservative Damien Moore has reported that UKIP will not stand this time, thereby removing the other potential choice for strong Brexiteers. Southport will be one to watch then for plenty of reasons.
What about the other parties?
Clearly it will be some time before there is canvass or polling information which reflects the Brexit Party announcement. But the national reaction of political parties indicates that most leaders feel a vote for the Tories is now the same as a vote for the Brexit Party.
Ed Davey, the Lib Dem deputy leader said that “the Conservatives and the Brexit party are now one and the same”. Labour is calling the arrangement a Trump alliance which is “Thatcherism on steroids” and a Thatcher tribute act.
The Plaid Cymru leader Adam Price meanwhile said: “That Nigel Farage is willing to endorse Boris Johnson is proof that they are planning to deliver a disastrous no deal”.
The SNP, like the Lib Dems, also say the Brexit Party and the Conservative party are one and the same.
The anti-Brexit group Best for Britain has referred to the announcement as “two cheeks of the same Brexit arse”.
Iain Duncan Smith, the former Conservative leader and prominent Brexiter however, said Farage’s announcement was a “good thing” and may help the Conservatives to win a majority, adding: “of course winning a majority is critical if you want to deliver Brexit and Boris to stay.”
The Brexit party clearly believes it can do well against Labour. And there is some evidence for this. In its heyday, UKIP challenged in key Labour seats and came very close to a by-election gain in Heywood and Middleton in 2014.
At the time, then deputy leader Paul Nuttall was openly calling for a strategy of focusing on northern Labour seats. But intervention in Labour-held seats could well split the anti-Labour vote and so keep incumbents in place. Indeed, it seems the Brexit Party is more of a threat to the Conservatives than to Labour.
As ever in the UK’s first-past-the-post system, much will depend on which challenger party can claim the mantle of most likely to succeed. And of course, if the start of the campaigning is anything to go by, it appears voters can’t take anything for granted.