Nigel Farage has never won a seat in the UK parliament, nor has he sat at a cabinet table. Yet he has been one of the most effective British politicians of recent history. On Monday he made an announcement that showed why he cannot be discounted from exerting influence just because he cannot get elected. Mr Farage’s decision to pull his Brexit party candidates out of the 317 seats won by the Conservatives at the 2017 general election will help the hardliners in Boris Johnson’s party.
Whether this is a formal pact or just a loose arrangement, it signals to liberal Conservatives, who blanch at Mr Farage’s demagoguery, that they are a vanishing species in the Tory party. Any form of Brexit that is acceptable to Mr Farage will be deeply damaging for the UK. In backing Mr Johnson’s deal, Mr Farage reveals it for what it really is: a nationalist project that sacrifices economic, constitutional and social stability on the altar of cut-throat competition and deregulation.
Both Mr Johnson and Mr Farage are committed to supporting a damaging Brexit to get Britain out of the EU. It’s no surprise that Donald Trump has been urging both leaders to come together. To form a Johnson-led government will require the support of voters who will suffer the most from a hard Brexit. That is why Mr Farage peddles the idea that he is speaking up for the working-class leavers Labour has forgotten. Yet Conservatives will not give Mr Farage’s party a free run at northern seats where there’s a big leave vote, but an even bigger resistance to backing the Tories.
Mr Farage, who owns 60% of the Brexit party, has described it as a “company” rather than a political party. It “won” the European elections this year but its candidates did not stand on any manifesto. There appears little intra-party democracy and Mr Farage is not troubled by local associations or a national executive committee. He is laying the ground for the emergence of a form of populism in the UK in which demagogues use digital tools and corporate structures to direct mass movements. That is what makes him so dangerous and why he should not be let near government.
Viewed through the lens of Brexit, Britain is split into two tribes – one that sees the referendum vote of 2016 as inviolable and one that does not. Mr Farage and Mr Johnson have reached an accommodation because they think the outcome of the election will be decided by which Brexit tribe can best marshal its supporters. That begs the question of why the parties that want a second referendum on Brexit, like Labour and the Greens, or those who want to cancel it altogether, such as the Liberal Democrats, cannot do the same. Again, it might not be a formal alliance, because party loyalties and pride militates against it. On the ground there may be informal anti-Conservative alliances that materialise which are not sanctioned by party leaderships. Parties can also work together against a common enemy by encouraging tactical voting by their supporters.
The pollster Peter Kellner calculated that if tactical voting could be used in the same way as it was in 1997, anti-hard Brexit parties would have a substantial majority. First-past-the-post rewards the two biggest parties, making Labour and Conservatives more likely to squash competitors because they fear being upended by them. If Britain’s electoral system was fairer and did not confer winner-takes-all powers to those with only minority support among voters, then electoral pacts would not be necessary.
What the current political crisis is exposing, among other things, is the inadequacy of our voting system. If progressive parties take power after 12 December they ought to make fixing it a priority.