What Nigel Farage's withdrawal from Tory seats does and doesn't mean

The Brexit Party's decision to stand aside in the 317 seats Theresa May won in 2017 isn't all good news for Tory candidates.

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The Brexit Party will not run candidates in any of the 317 seats the Conservatives won in 2017, Nigel Farage has said. In a move that Farage insists will shore up Tory MPs at risk from the resurgent Liberal Democrats, he will instead concentrate his campaigning efforts in Labour-held seats such as Hartlepool, where he made this afternoon’s announcement. 

Though the Brexit Party leader had made a good fist of at least appearing defiant in the face of accusations that he would split the Leave vote and deliver a hung parliament in the event he made good on his promise to run 632 candidates, a u-turn along today’s lines looked increasingly inevitable as this Thursday’s deadline for nominating candidates drew closer. 

Not only had Farage come under sustained pressure from the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party to stand aside, but his own party was profoundly split on its electoral strategy too: a steady stream of his own candidates stood down last week on the grounds that their presence on the ballot paper could only diminish the chances of delivering a majority of pro-Brexit MPs in the next parliament. 

Beneath his own bluster, meanwhile, it was clear that Farage – whose decision to launch his campaign in Labour Leave seats last week portended what was to come  was in search of a ladder to climb down. Ahead of a rally in Ashfield last Tuesday, he told the New Statesman: “He we are, sitting here on 5 November, nominations close on 14 November. Things may move. I don’t know any more than you do. Things can change in the next nine or ten days.” 

Have they? Not materially. But last night Boris Johnson provided Farage with the figleaf he needed. In a statement that now appears to have been delivered with an audience of one in mind, Johnson ruled out extending the transition period beyond 2020, and clarified that his preferred future relationship with the EU was a Canda-style free trade agreement with no political alignment. Though neither of those commitments are new, they have allowed Farage to spin an embarrassing climbdown as a magnanimous sacrifice in the national interest. 

For the Conservatives, the big question is whether Farage’s self-styled Leave alliance can succeed on its own terms: locking Labour and the Liberal Democrats out of contention in Conservative-held seats, and, as a consequence, out of cobbling together a majority for a second referendum in the next parliament. 

Most of those who won their seats in 2017 think it is straightforwardly good news for their own chances of holding on in marginals, at least. “70 per cent Leave in 2016 and only one Leave party on the ballot paper,” says one. “I’ll take that.” Many feared that the most likely circumstances in which they would lose their seats would not involve any meaningful Labour surge but a split Leave vote. Farage’s withdrawal means that incumbents will avoid that scenario, and in most cases boosts their chances. 

The snag, of course, is that Theresa May did not win a majority in 2017, and merely hanging on to all 317 seats she won which, once likely losses in Scotland are factored in, isn’t going to happen anyway is nowhere near sufficient if Johnson wants a Parliament that can pass his withdrawal agreement by 31 January. If the absence of the Brexit Party delivers more than 300 seats but falls short of a majority, it leave Johnson with a similar inheritance to the Parliament he just dissolved. Not only would he be short of a majority but beholden to two parliamentary blocs that share his desire to leave the EU but disagree with the terms: pro-deal Labour MPs, and the DUP. 

Escaping from that parliamentary bind is the very point of this election. But doing so will mean winning dozens of Labour-held marginals where a majority of voters backed Leave in 2016: Hartlepool, Ashfield, Bolsover. Even if the Labour share of the vote falls in these seats as most expect it to the Conservative fear is that the Brexit Party is still likely to act as a spoiler. One minister dismisses talk that today’s news is a game-changer for that reason. A senior member of the ERG, meanwhile, says they are "not yet" delighted: "This is welcome but we must have a clear parliamentary majority to deliver a great future relationship." Another member of the government defending a slender majority in the East Midlands adds: “A more logical approach would have been to stand against a few Remain Tories but back Leave candidates in marginals.” The mood is one of cautious optimism at best.

Although Farage believes his intervention will kneecap the Liberal Democrats, some of its candidates in the south are still cautiously optimistic. Max Wilkinson, the party’s candidate in Cheltenham a top target offered a bullish response on Twitter: “I’m disturbed to see that Cheltenham’s Conservative candidate at the election, Alex Chalk, has won the backing of Nigel Farage this time round. Pretty shocking that a so-called ‘moderate’ could stand on a joint ticket with a right wing extremist.”

Candidates like Wilkinson will now discover whether Farage or Johnson is a bigger electoral asset for the Liberal Democrats. “The Brexit Party were taking votes from the Conservatives,” says one Liberal Democrat attempting to dislodge a Tory incumbent. “But this alliance will alienate so many Tory moderates, as Johnson’s leadership already has in large numbers. The big question is whether we’ve reached the floor already, whether there are more teetering on the brink, or whether this stops the very small bleed away of voters who are moderate but will consider voting Tory to get it over with.” 

A source on the party’s national campaign agrees. “If ever you wanted confirmation that the Conservative Party is lost, then this is it. It’s also a very helpful reminder that only the Liberal Democrats can take Tory seats.” If that message is to cut through, however, Farage will need to be at the forefront of wavering Conservative minds as they cast their ballot on 12 December.

Ultimately, where his withdrawal might have the most impact be it in seats the Brexit Party fights or leaves to the Conservatives is that voters end up seeing much less of Nigel Farage than they would have done had he filled the airtime broadcasting rules make available to a party fighting every constituency in Great Britain.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.