An interesting aspect of Boris Johnson’s honeymoon is that opinion polls showing the Conservatives six or seven points ahead also suggest they would, at a general election, win around 25 seats fewer than now. As the honeymoon advances, it is far from certain matters will improve, even if Jeremy Corbyn’s standing continues to decline. The news last weekend of talks between former chancellor Philip Hammond and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer – ostensibly about derailing a no-deal Brexit, but possibly about the prospects for a “government of national unity” – should worry both main parties. But the Tories, more than Labour, have much to fear from the continuation, and growth, of the Brexit Party under Nigel Farage.
Two aspects of the first days of the Johnson regime have worried some hard Brexiteers who suspended disbelief, ignored his long record of personal disloyalty towards colleagues, and backed him as leader. The first was his dismissal of two devout Brexiteers, Penny Mordaunt and Liam Fox, for apparently no reason other than failing to support his campaign. The second was the appointment of Dominic Cummings, the former Vote Leave campaign director, as Johnson’s key adviser. Those who have experienced Cummings routinely regard him as a sociopath, and Mordaunt’s and Fox’s sackings are attributed to his influence. So is the graceless treatment of Jeremy Hunt, who conducted an honest and honourable campaign against Johnson, and whose marginalisation has not impressed many Tory MPs.
Part of Cummings’s curious psychological makeup appears to be that he couldn’t care less what people think of him, not least, it seems, because he believes he is always right, and all others are dunderheads. Johnson has a similar, if less extreme and more nuanced, outlook on the human race. In time – if the new regime lasts that long – there will be an eruption, which we should await with interest, when one of them either has to concede a point, or walk out. But Brexiteers also regarded Steve Baker’s decision not to serve in the government as a sign that Cummings calls the shots. It was not only that No 10 is determined to control the Brexit process – Baker was offered a junior job of “powerlessness” at the Brexit department – but that Cummings regards the European Research Group (of which Baker is a leading light) as toxic and anathema to his idea of what Brexit should be.
“Cummings didn’t want a full Brexit,” Farage told me earlier this week. “For him, the referendum was a means of forcing a Leave vote that would lead to the creation of a sort of associate membership of the EU. I don’t assume that view has changed. He seems now to be instructing Johnson with the line that ‘we are the Conservative Party, we can crush the Brexit Party and hold the pro-Leave ground.’ I think he is mistaken.” Cummings is also touchy about people such as Farage and Baker, who really did play key parts in the success of the Leave campaign, intruding on his largely self-defined legend on the subject.
The Brexit Party is scheduled to announce up to 150 parliamentary candidates this week, promising not to “fall into the trap” again of thinking a Conservative government would achieve a satisfactory Brexit. Having raised £3m through crowdfunding to fight the European elections, it is confident of raising double that for a general election; and there are allegedly several wealthy individuals prepared to write substantial cheques.
Nor does the party rule out fighting an election post-Brexit, even the sort of hard Brexit it deems acceptable. Its thinking is that Brexit was just the beginning of a national political regeneration that must continue to bring government more into line with the public’s wishes on matters such as Lords reform, ending abuses of postal voting, and tackling other problems preventing a correctly-functioning democracy.
Yet grassroots Tories expect an electoral pact with the Brexit Party, should an election be forced while Britain remains in the EU; they may be wrong. “I do think the appointment of Cummings makes any prospect of co-operation seem very difficult,” says Farage. “We saw when we tried to discuss with him in 2016 co-operation on the Leave side in the referendum that he feels a hostility towards genuine Leavers.”
Farage too subscribes to the view that Johnson and Cummings will fall out. “It is clear that Cummings can’t work with anyone apart from Michael Gove. When you look back on the whole Vote Leave campaign now, it was about Tory MPs jockeying for position. Cummings is used to people doing things exactly his way. If Johnson varies from that they will have problems.”
The Brexit Party view is that Johnson will, for all his rhetoric, seek to reheat and amend May’s withdrawal agreement, attempting to pass through the Commons the same document Johnson claimed would render us a “vassal state”. It is shared by some Tory hard-liners. Some, noting the treatment of Baker, are already beginning to regret their vocal support for Johnson. They feel that even without the Irish backstop the deal remains unacceptable to Leave voters. Farage’s view is that, before too long, people will become suspicious of Johnson’s ability to deliver on his promise without either abandoning no-deal or being brought down by a confidence vote that triggers the general election he claims he will not call.
Farage does not rule out an electoral pact with the Tories: but wouldn’t agree to one unless convinced of their commitment to deliver a genuine Brexit, which he certainly isn’t. Like many Tory MPs, his colleagues feel it is impossible that Cummings would ever allow such a pact while he is running Johnson. In any case, they also believe that the great realignment in British politics the right is crying out for is within the Brexit Party’s grasp – and can only be achieved by confronting the Tories head-on.