Nigel Farage sold his decision to stand down 317 Brexit Party candidates in seats won by the Conservatives in 2017 as a bid to protect Boris Johnson from the resurgent Liberal Democrats. Unsurprisingly, Jo Swinson’s campaign team do not share his analysis. Indeed, senior Liberal Democrats are willing to argue that they are the real beneficiaries from Farage’s withdrawal from Tory-held seats, for two key reasons.
Firstly, they believe that Farage has done them a favour in seats where Conservative incumbents are at risk of being dislodged by Liberal Democrat challengers. Having explicitly framed his withdrawal in terms of minimising the threat posed by Swinson’s party, her allies believe that he has established them as the main challenger to the Tories.
Just which of the opposition parties is the best bet for Remain voters seeking to unseat their Conservative MP has been a particularly bitter point of contention for Labour and the Liberal Democrats of late, but sources on the latter campaign believe Farage will help them win the argument. They hope it will reinforce a message they believe has yet to cut through among Remainers looking to maximise the chances of a parliament with a pro-referendum majority: that Labour’s real challenge is not losing seats to the Conservatives, while the Liberal Democrats can actually win them.
Secondly, they think the optics of today’s announcement make that job easier. “For Conservative-facing targets that voted Remain in 2016, this seeming tie-up between the Tories and Brexit Party is very toxic indeed for the Conservatives…for many former Tory voters, Boris as leader was bad enough, but a Johnson-Farage alliance is even worse,” argues a senior Liberal Democrat fighting a London seat. “We will be plastering it all over our literature in many of the Remain-majority seats held by the Tories.”
Other candidates in such seats are less sure, however. The question they must now consider is whether the Brexit Party drew more votes away from their Conservative rival than the taint of any alliance will. One strikes a cautious note: “Johnson’s leadership has already driven large numbers of moderates away from the Conservatives. The big question is whether they’d reached the floor already or whether there are more teetering on the brink.” It is too soon to know whether that gamble will pay off.