An interesting aspect of Boris Johnson’s honeymoon is that initial polls showing the Tories six or seven points ahead also suggested they would, at a general election, win around 25 seats fewer than now. 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 have more to fear than Labour from the growth of the Brexit Party under Nigel Farage.
Two aspects of the first days of the Johnson regime have concerned some hard Brexiteers who suspended disbelief, ignored his long record of personal disloyalty 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 co-ordinator, as his 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, whose marginalisation has not impressed many Tory MPs.
Part of Cummings’s curious psychological make-up 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. Johnson has a similar, if less extreme, outlook. In time there will be an eruption, when one of them either has to concede a point, or walk out.
Brexiteers also regarded Steve Baker’s decision not to serve in the government as a sign that Cummings calls the shots: he 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 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. He seems 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.”
This week the Brexit Party will announce up to 150 parliamentary candidates, promising not to “fall into the trap” again of thinking a Conservative government would achieve a satisfactory Brexit. Having crowdfunded £3m to fight the European elections, it is confident of raising double that for a general election. Nor does the party rule out fighting an election post-Brexit. It sees Brexit as the beginning of a political regeneration that should bring government more into line with the public’s wishes on matters such as Lords reform and abuses of postal voting.
Yet grass-roots 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,” Farage said. He also thinks 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 it was about Tory MPs jockeying for position. Cummings is used to people doing things exactly his way.”
The Brexit Party suspect Johnson will seek to reheat and amend Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, attempting to get through the Commons the same document he claimed would render us a “vassal state”. Some Tory hard-liners 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 thinks people will become suspicious of Johnson’s ability to deliver on his promise without writing off a no deal, or being brought down by a confidence vote that triggers the election he claims he will not call. He 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 isn’t.
Like many Tories, his colleagues feel it is impossible that Cummings would ever allow such a pact while he is running Johnson. They believe that the great political realignment the right is crying out for is within the Brexit Party’s grasp – and can only be achieved by confronting the Tories head on.
Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraph