Nigel Farage move may not help Tories as much as it first appears

Fact that Brexit party still plans to field candidates in Tory target seats means it’s not all good news for Boris Johnson

Nigel Farage’s unilateral announcement that he will engage in a one-way electoral pact with the Conservatives will be an undoubted relief to Boris Johnson, but the benefit may be more limited than it first appears.

Headline polling data already indicated that the Brexit party was being successfully squeezed by the Tories’ pro-Brexit strategy. Its polling average had slumped from 12% in the third week of October to its current 9%.

Four polls released over the weekend paint an even bleaker picture, placing the Brexit party at an average of 7.5%. There was already no real prospect that it would capture a seat in parliament, even if Farage changed his mind and decided to stand.


Such is the Brexit party’s weakness that Labour is recovering among leave voters, albeit modestly. According to another pollster, Opinium, Labour has overtaken the Brexit party among all leave voters for the first time (although it lags well behind the Conservatives).

The pollster has the Conservatives on 66% of leave voters, with Labour on 15%. Brexit party support among its core voting segment is only 12%.

So will Farage’s announcement significantly damage Labour?

Look more closely at Labour leavers, people who voted out in the referendum and for Jeremy Corbyn’s party in 2017. The Opinium data records a gain of 10 points in a week for the opposition, rising from 38% to 48%. In this key category, Farage’s party had lost eight points, sinking to 7%.

Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester, thinks Farage’s announcement could actually help Labour candidates such as Melanie Onn in Grimsby, where she is defending a majority of 2,565 against the Conservatives.

“Labour’s vote will go down if the Brexit party stands, but the Conservative vote will go down by more because leave supporters are a higher proportion of its own base. You have to wonder if Farage understands his own electorate,” the academic said.


The danger for the Conservatives is a repeat of the Peterborough effect, where Labour hung on to the seat in this year’s byelection, helped by a split in the leave vote. Lisa Forbes won for Labour with 31% of the vote, while the Brexit party obtained 29% and the Conservatives (who had held the seat in 2015) took 21%.

Can Farage do anything about that?

The small print of the Farage declaration is his announcement that “we will concentrate our total effort into all the seats that are held by the Labour party” – although the Brexit party has yet to spell out exactly where it will run candidates.

Backing down further to give the Tories a clear run in target seats held by Labour would be far more useful, given how close Johnson’s party is to an overall majority. But it would raise questions over what the point of the Brexit party is if it runs a further reduced slate of candidates.

What about the strategic position?

The Conservatives are suddenly faced with a much simpler election campaign: the party can shift resources away from seats it had been defending to focus on Labour gains. And with Farage aiming primarily at Corbyn’s party, there should be no real need to defend the argument that Johnson’s deal “is not a proper Brexit”.

But for Labour there are, in England and Wales at least, other possibilities: it is easy to present Farage’s manoeuvre as an unattractive pact, possibly brokered under pressure from Donald Trump, who told the Brexit party leader in a radio interview to “team up” with the Conservatives.

That means, paradoxically, that one of the victims of Farage’s decision to put one foot over the sidelines could be the Lib Dems. That is because Labour can now try to argue, as it did successfully in 2017, that the forthcoming election is effectively a two-horse race in England and Wales.


Dan Sabbagh

The GuardianTramp

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