Jeremy Hunt is MP for South West Surrey, and a former Foreign Secretary.
Many times on the leadership campaign in the summer I was asked whether we should do a pact with the Brexit Party in any future General Election. My answer was always no – as indeed was Boris’ – a position he has maintained to his credit. Should we therefore worry that Nigel Farage has withdrawn Brexit Party candidates from all seats held by Conservatives?
No is the answer.
I didn’t – and wouldn’t – agree to a pact for a very straightforward reason: we only ever prosper as a party when we appeal to the centre ground. Any pact with the Brexit Party would lead to us losing far more support from the centre than we would gain on the right. Added to which Farage wants a very different Brexit to us: he wants what he calls a ‘clean break’ Brexit – but is effectively a No Deal Brexit. If that was the only Brexit on offer I would accept it, but it is clearly far from optimal, with significant risks for both business and the Union. Because Boris has successfully negotiated a new deal, minus the backstop, that is not thankfully a prospect we now have to consider. It continues to baffle even many Brexit Party supporters that Farage still won’t support the new deal.
Rather than a pact, this is a calculation by the Brexit Party that in another hung parliament the resulting Labour/LibDem/SNP coalition could lead to no Brexit at all. They have concluded that is an outcome their supporters would not like to see. However, they are perversely still risking that very outcome by standing in every Labour-held marginal seat the Conservatives need to win to get a majority. Labour MPs in those seats will heave a sigh of relief as their only chance of survival is a Conservative/Brexit Party split in the Leave vote. That is why YouGov have said they believe this is unlikely to be a game-changing moment.
But there is one more reason why this is far from a far from a pact. Not only has there been no agreement between the two parties, the whole thrust of our campaign so far has been to colonise the centre ground not retreat from it.
This can be seen by more NHS announcements in this election than I can remember in any election; the commitment to other public services, including 20,000 more police officers and more school funding; even the reversal of the benefits freeze, a change for which there was little middle class clamour but which will make an enormous difference to people on low incomes. Whatever the Brexit dividing lines these are policies squarely aimed at attracting non-Conservatives not by doubling down on a right wing alliance but by reaching out to those people who feel alienated from the political establishment.
Determination to implement Brexit should not obscure the fact that when it comes to One nation Conservatism this is an approach of which Disraeli would be proud.