Were the coming election to be a Brexit referendum, and were Boris Johnson also to face a Remain Alliance, the case for a pact with Nigel Farage’s party would be persuasive – indeed, unanswerable.
However, the poll may not focus on leaving the EU at all. Jeremy Corbyn diverted the last election from Brexit. He is already trying the same trick again, suggesting that the Tories would sell the NHS to Donald Trump. He may succeed.
Nor will the Conservatives be confronted in most constituencies by a Remain Alliance. Labour and the Liberal Democrats will slug it out for the Revoke and Referendum votes. They will variously be joined by the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cyrmu.
In short, Johnson won’t need a united Leave vote to defeat a united Remain vote in most places. So he has a bit more time and space to think and act than he might otherwise have done. During it, he should count his blessings, and be thankful that, today, a greedy Farage has made a strategic blunder, for the following reasons.
First, because a serious Brexit Party proposal for a pact, based on it fighting say 50 seats without a Conservative competitor, would have been very hard for either side to deliver. Johnson regards consistency as a hobgoblin of little minds. Farage is mercurial, unpredictable and conflicted. He will have been pulled one way by seeking to get Brexit done, which suggests a serious pact and the withdrawal of many candidates; and the other by his party’s ambitions, which lead logically to a maximalist approach, and standing in as many seats as possible. In these circumstances, one can imagine both sides reneging on any agreement.
Second, there would have been a dickens of a row over which 50 or so constituencies the Conservatives should not contest. The Brexit Party didn’t win the Peterborough by-election and has no organised track record on the ground. Johnson is ahead in the polls and almost pulled off a by-election win in Brecon Radnorshire. The two would have quarrelled like cats and dogs over who was best placed where.
Third, the 2015 election should have taught all concerned that the votes of Party A don’t automatically transfer to Party B – in the event of Party A not standing. David Cameron won a majority because UKIP took a big slice of votes not from his party but from…the Liberal Democrats. In a four-way election like that one – and this coming one too – almost anything can happen, either in England or Wales, or in Scotland where the configuration is different. Some even argue that the absence of a pact will damage Labour more than the Conservatives.
Fourth, the Conservative bird flies with two wings. A pact with the Brexit Party would have strengthened one but weakened the other. Good news, perhaps, for candidates fighting Labour in the Midlands and the North. Bad news, certainly, for those seeking to see off the Liberal Democrats in the south, and maybe Labour in London too. The left wing of the Tory Party would revolt against a Farage pact. Johnson doesn’t need that noise off, accompanied by possible defections, during an election campaign.
Fifth – and further to the point – it would be odd, if one disagrees with a party over a core policy, to campaign in alliance with it. Johnson favours his deal. Farage supports No Deal – at least, he prefers such a platform to the Prime Minister’s. Why should the Party stand aside for another opposed to the central plank of its Brexit policy?
For all these reasons, a pact would have been a very bad idea – and Farage is trying it on by seeking to bully, panic and fluster prospective Conservative candidates into supporting his proposal rather than the Prime Minister’s. They should tell him to boil his head.
That roughly half of Party activists seem to think otherwise is understandable. They rightly grasp that Farage, for all his faults, is a hero of Brexit. Without his campaigning over many years, it might well not have happened. We may laugh at his Ambassadorial ambitions and quest for a knighthood, and feel for a man who has in some ways been undermined by his own success: he has looked at a loss since the referendum. He fully deserves the knighthood and recognition which the Remain Ascendancy has resisted giving him.
None the less, the Conservatives and the Brexit Party are ultimately very different.
The former is the oldest governing party in the world which, from time to time, changes its stance on the Europe issue and how Britain should approach it. But today’s Tory Party is demonstrably like yesterdays. Johnson is an intuitive leader in the Disraeli mould – a One Nation eurosceptic preoccupied with big spending, infrastructure and what he calls “boosterism”. The Conservatives have in their time seen off or swallowed the Liberal Unionists, the League of Empire Loyalists, the Referendum Party. Now they have another competitor.
The Brexit Party is concentrated on one predominant aim – Brexit: to all intents and purposes, a No Deal one. It is a very young party developing other policies. It boasts prominent former Tories near the top. (One of the reasons why Conservative activists feel at home with it is because it projects former Party bigwigs, such as Ann Widdecombe.) But lots of its activists are not Tories and would be horrified by any suggestion that they are.
So it would be unfair to them as well as to Conservative ones to seek to shoehorn both into a contrived alliance – in defiance of beliefs, the electoral landscape, policies, local factors, personnel, and the way in which Brexit should be carried out.
Jimmy Goldsmith. The pro-Euro Conservative Party. (Remember it?) The Peelites. As we say, the Party has outlasted the whole lot of them and more. It has a tried and tested way of swallowing up or driving out competitors on either wing. Maybe it will be different this time. But a party that has seen off Lloyd George, Arthur K Chesterton, Christopher Brockleback-Fowler, Paul Nuttall and Nick Clegg really ought to be capable of seeing off Farage too.