Reports emerged today that Nigel Farage has decided not to stand Brexit Party general election candidates in every constituency across Britain, announcing the party will not contest the 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. Describing it as a ‘unilateral Leave alliance’, the stance represents a boost for Boris Johnson’s party for the 12 December general election.
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Whether this removes the prospect of splitting the pro-Brexit vote entirely however, remains to be seen, as the forthcoming election is one of the most unpredictable ever held and polling experts have said it may not prove decisive to the outcome, as Mr Johnson's candidates will still face Brexit Party rivals in the crucial Leave-backing Labour seats which the Tories must win in order to secure an overall majority in the Commons.
Mr Johnson told Sky News he had “absolutely not” done a deal with Farage, adding: “I’m glad that there is a recognition that there is only one way to get Brexit done and that is to vote for the Conservatives.”
The Brexit Party leader has been accused of “bottling it” by supporters of continued EU membership, who stepped up calls for Remainers to vote tactically to avoid a Johnson majority. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: "One week ago Donald Trump told Nigel Farage to make a pact with Boris Johnson. Today, Trump got his wish. This Trump alliance is Thatcherism on steroids and could send £500 million a week from our NHS to big drugs companies. It must be stopped."
Mr Farage has repeatedly denounced Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement with Brussels, insisting it did not deliver Brexit and would not allow the UK to “take back control”. But he has come under severe pressure not to split the Leave vote, with former ally Arron Banks setting up a tactical voting website urging Brexit supporters to vote for the Conservatives and not for Mr Farage’s party.
In a speech in Hartlepool, the Brexit Party leader said he had decided overnight that fighting all 632 seats in England, Scotland and Wales was likely to lead to large numbers of gains by Remain-backing parties including the Liberal Democrats with a hung parliament and second referendum “by far the most likely outcome”. He added that he had been reassured by “a very clear change of direction” signalled by Mr Johnson in a video posted on social media on Sunday evening, in which the PM promised to negotiate a “super Canada-plus” free trade agreement with the EU and rule out any extension of talks on future relations beyond the end of 2020.
"I think our action, this announcement today, prevents a second referendum from happening,” said Mr Farage. "And that to me, I think right now, is the single most important thing in our country. So in a sense we now have a Leave alliance, it's just that we've done it unilaterally.
"We've decided ourselves that we absolutely have to put country before party and take the fight to Labour." He said the Brexit Party will now "concentrate our total effort into all the seats that are held by the Labour Party, who have completely broken their manifesto pledge in 2017 to respect the result of the referendum".
A spokesman for Leave.EU said: “The approach is ‘Back Brexit, back Boris’. We will tell Brexiteers the right candidates to back for Brexit. If that is against the Brexit Party then so be it. We have to get Boris a majority so we can get Brexit done.”
The chief executive of the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, Naomi Smith, said: “Farage has bottled it and hung most of his own candidates out to dry.”
Ms Smith said it was “now more important than ever that Remainers use their votes wisely,” adding: ” Our best chance of stopping a nightmarish government delivering a hard and damaging Brexit is voting tactically.”
Best for Britain believes that Mr Johnson could be denied a majority if just a third of Remainers follow the advice of its tactical voting website.
Remain-backing Labour candidate David Lammy said: “Nigel Farage bottling it by standing down in Tory seats shows how vital it is for Remainers to co-operate.
“We cannot allow this hard-right alliance between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – dancing to the tune of Donald Trump – to permanently wreck our country.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Ed Davey said: “Nigel Farage standing down shows the Conservatives and the Brexit Party are now one and the same. Johnson’s hard-right Brexit takeover of the Tory party has now been endorsed by both Trump and Farage. As Nigel Farage has admitted, the Liberal Democrats are the only party at this election that can take seats from the Conservatives, stop Brexit and build a brighter future.”
Elections guru Sir John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, said Farage's new stance might stand in the way of Liberal Democrats claiming Tory scalps in Leave-backing constituencies in the south like North Cornwall and North Devon. He said: "The crucial group (of constituencies) where Boris Johnson has to make gains in order to compensate for whatever he loses elsewhere are the marginal Labour-held seats. At the moment, Nigel Farage is still going to stand in those. To that extent at least, Nigel Farage's offer doesn't really give the prime minister the prize he would really want, which is a free run against Labour where the Labour Party stands between him and an overall majority."
Recent polling suggests that around 70 per cent of Brexit Party voters will back Tories and about 22 per cent Labour if Farage's party does not stand in their area, he said.
YouGov’s political research manager Chris Curtis said that current polling suggests a 4 per cent swing from Labour to the Conservatives. This could translate into Tories taking seats like Barrow and Furness, Great Grimsby, Workington, Bridgend, Gower, and Stoke-on-Trent Central from Labour, while Mr Corbyn's party wins few, if any, seats from the Conservatives," he said.
"Given this, Farage’s decision to stand aside in current Conservative-held seats and not in Labour-held seats that the Tories will be looking to gain will likely make very little difference," said Mr Curtis. "Despite today’s drama, this is unlikely to be a game-changing moment.”
Commentators are also describing the election as a second referendum on Brexit, so it may well come down to how many of those who voted to remain in the EU in 2016 but have nevertheless either changed their mind or accepted that they lost, vote for the Conservatives or the Brexit Party. There also of course a number who voted to leave, but have now altered their own views.
It is these groups that may well hold the key to the result of 2019.