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21 May 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:57pm

The Conservatives may see no-deal as their only chance of defeating Nigel Farage

By Simon Wren-Lewis

Nigel Farage, as leader of UKIP, was critical in making Cameron commit to an EU referendum. As a key player on the Leave side in the referendum, he helped gain a narrow victory. Conservative Brexiteers then turned a vote for a negotiated deal with the EU into a headbanging demand to leave without any deal at all. When parliament failed to agree that, Nigel Farage re-entered the picture talking about humiliation and national betrayal and demanding a No Deal exit. The political consequences of Farage have already been immense, and they do not look like they are going away. What further havoc is he likely to cause?

With the exception of the EU referendum itself, his influence has nearly always been meted out through the Conservative party. The threat he poses to Conservatives in the future will define his greatest influence now. Although Brexiteers would never admit this, they must be hoping that Farage decimates the Conservative vote in the European elections. The Brexit party have announced no policies beyond a desire to get on with Brexit, by which they mean leave with No Deal. His support is not that surprising given the even larger support for No Deal in the polls. If you think its unusual for so many to abandon the Conservative party you are also probably still wondering how so many people could vote for Trump.

Brexiteers will argue that they have to move their own party’s policy from leaving with some kind of agreed deal to leaving without a deal (perhaps after another fruitless attempt to negotiate away the backstop), otherwise Farage will seriously damage their vote in any general election. They would be correct, particularly if Labour drop their pointless desire to negotiate a Brexit deal of their own. One Brexiteer has even suggested an electoral pact with Farage, where they divide up Westminster seats between them.

The candidates for the next leader of the Conservative party will be falling over themselves to appeal to a membership, the majority of whom favour No Deal (see here and a recent Times/YouGov poll). That process may itself lead to some kind of commitment to No Deal and not to hold a People’s Vote. But MPs and Conservative party members will also be thinking of selecting someone who can match Farages charisma. If he survives the preliminary votes by MPs, Boris Johnson may seem an irresistible choice. He is currently the clear front runner in a recent poll of members.

It is possible that whoever is elected, and whatever the commitments they make during their campaign, might try and steer a middle course between the two wings of the party. But Farage would always be waiting to cry betrayal and attract Tory votes in the forthcoming general election. The only escape route I can see is to change the backstop back to its original form, where it only applies to Northern Ireland. Whether that option could get through parliament is unclear. As the DUP are bound to end their arrangement with the government in those circumstances, a general election would have to follow.

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If instead the new Prime Minister did commit to No Deal, the issue is whether they could get that through parliament. With the current set of MPs that seems unlikely. Nevertheless they will see it as their only chance of making Farage go away. The Conservatives have dug a deep hole for themselves, and they will believe that the only way forward is to dig some more. That policy would lead to defections or resignations by some MPs, but the leadership and other Brexiteers would take that as an opportunity to replace them with Brexiteers in due course.

There is one possibility, which in normal times we would not even think about, but which unfortunately we now have to. That possibility is that the government, led by someone like Boris Johnson, decides to leave without any deal without consulting parliament, using the 2016 referendum to argue that the people are more important than parliament. My understanding is that technically they could do so, but it would be a constitutional outrage in most MPs eyes. Parliament would almost certainly find some opportunity to give voice to their objection, but what if the government took no notice? 

A major constitutional crisis like this means many things could happen. It is possible the EU would not accept the withdrawal unless it was approved by parliament. Parliament could refuse to pass any legislation associated with withdrawal. Having to worry about such things illustrates how far along the populist road (in the Jan-Werner Müller sense of the term) we have gone.

It is more likely that the government would settle for the long game, with the hope that through time and a General Election it could get enough MPs to get No Deal through parliament. If the EU loses patience and refuses an extension, the government could call an election talking about bullying from the EU and turning nationalist rhetoric up to maximum volume.

Could a Conservative party pushing a no deal exit ever win a general election? If the election took place after parliament had revoked Article 50 or a referendum had chosen Remain, voters would soon decide that they really didn’t want to go through the process again. Indeed the longer we stay in Brexit limbo the more people will prefer to forget about the whole thing. That and a slim majority would put some pressure on any new leader to hold an early election.

Could a recently appointed Conservative Prime Minister beat Labour in an early election? It is not impossible, particularly if the Labour leadership are still clinging to a belief that Brexit should take place. But I also think it is rather unlikely. Boris, like May, is a good foil for Corbyn, as this poll suggests. Those who think a Prime Minister should be serious rather than a buffoon will tend to choose Corbyn. More people would rather Remain than to leave without a deal, including some Conservative voters. As John Harris points out, the young middle class of suburban England, many of whom voted Remain, are learning how not to vote Conservative. On non-Brexit policies Labour will win the cities hands down, and attract many in more traditional heartlands.  

How did the Conservative party find itself in a position where its only slim chance of winning a general election is to embrace a policy opposed by most businesses and that will inevitably have a very serious impact on the economy? The first blunder was of course the decision to appease UKIP and Tory Brexiteers by promising to hold a referendum. The second was a failure to pin down the Brexiteers to commit to some form of leaving before the referendum. The third was to fight a terrible campaign. But even then a wise leader would have seen the gift that having a leader of the opposition who wanted Brexit presented, and instead opted for a conciliatory Brexit, which would have at least allowed a Withdrawal Agreement to be passed by parliament. In fact Theresa May did practically everything wrong, including adopting the fateful “no deal is better than a bad deal” mantra.

The bigger picture answer is that we are seeing the consequence of what in my book I call neoliberal overreach. It was the Conservative party and its supporting press that began the long process of whipping up anxiety about immigration. It was a Conservative government that embarked on prolonged austerity during the worst recession since the Second World War, which lead to the slowest recovery for centuries, and it was the Conservatives who erroneously blamed immigration for the resulting collapse in public services and real wages.

When you flirt with the tools of the far right, you are in great danger of getting into bed with them. Farage’s work on the EU is nearly done, but he will be ready and waiting for the next nationalist cause he can take up, and any future Conservative Prime Minister will be too weak in electoral terms to resist his siren call. The Conservatives have only have themselves to blame for playing with fire in the first place.