Why it’s not in Boris Johnson’s interests to kill off the Brexit Party

Jeremy Corbyn similarly has an interest in sustained Liberal Democrat support – up to a point. 

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The Brexit Party will stand 600 candidates across the United Kingdom, but Nigel Farage won’t be one of them. In a funny coincidence, the Brexit Party continues its slide in the polls, with its rating sitting at the 7 to 11 per cent mark, depending on the pollster.

Farage’s public rationale for stepping aside is that he can better serve the Brexit Party by appearing on television and touring the country than campaigning in one specific seat, but the reality is that this is an election in which the Brexit Party is highly unlikely to make constituency gains. Whether in its Ukip or Brexit Party incarnation, Farage’s groupings have struggled to make headway under First Past The Post even in favourable winds, and the 2019 election doesn’t, at the moment, look favourable.

But what impact will it have? That the Brexit Party is standing around the country guarantees Farage his time in the TV spotlight, where his message that this isn’t a real Brexit may well do damage to Boris Johnson. But in the country as a whole, while the Brexit Party vote in May 2019 was drawn largely from the Tories, its residual share is becoming more Labour-y. It’s in Johnson’s interests to weaken the Brexit Party but not to kill it off, and as it stands, he looks to be accomplishing that aim.

Jeremy Corbyn has a similar interest as far as Jo Swinson’s Liberal Democrats are concerned: Labour’s interests are best served if the Liberal Democrats take Conservative seats in which Swinson’s party is seen by Remain voters as a junior partner in a wider nationwide effort to stop Boris Johnson’s Brexit.

As far as the polls go, he looks some way short of that aim at the moment. But that Boris Johnson has agreed to a head-to-head debate on ITV on 19 November with Corbyn alone is a major boost for the Labour leader. He excels in that format, and Boris Johnson doesn’t. The PM was second-best to Jeremy Hunt and to Ken Livingstone in the TV hustings for the Conservative leadership and London mayoral races respectively, though, of course, that didn’t prevent him from winning both contests.

But if the debate goes ahead in its current format it will underline the argument that Corbyn wants to make: that this election is a choice between him and Johnson. His big challenge between now and the 19 November is to make sure that voters find that a harder question to answer than the polls currently suggest.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.