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Election Notebook

The Hartlepool Declaration

How much impact will Farage’s retreat really have?

Among the privileges of leading the Brexit Party is the right to make strategic decisions without requiring extensive stakeholder buy-in. No British political party does the centralisation of power like the Brexit Party. What it loses in tempering counsel, it gains in swiftness of response and delivery.

As Nigel Farage explained it to the supporters and journalists assembled to hear him in Hartlepool at noon on Monday, it was only the previous night that he decided to withdraw 317 Brexit Party candidates from contesting seats where the Conservatives are the incumbent. It was a decision that had the support of Richard Tice, the party chairman and Hartlepool candidate.

The game-changer, as Farage tells it, was Boris Johnson’s video that if returned as Prime Minister he would seek a free trade agreement with the EU along the lines of a “super Canada plus arrangement,” without any political alignment or further transition period extension beyond the end of 2020.

Having launched his party’s election campaign on the central message that ‘Boris’s deal is not Brexit,’ suddenly Farage has spotted that it might end up being something exceptionally reminiscent of it after all. It will be interesting to monitor in the coming days the extent to which the Brexit Party’s website and key messaging drops the ‘Boris’s deal is not Brexit’ line in favour of its other, vaguer, slogan, ‘We need a clean break.’

It is hard to believe that Farage only awoke on Sunday night to the concealed wisdom of the Prime Minister’s vision. It has been Johnson’s clearly stated goal since before he won the Conservative leadership.

The unknown quantity has long been not what Johnson has articulated to be his intention, but rather whether he is sincere in seeing it through to fruition. When the EU negotiators make demands on non-divergence and level playing-fields, will he remain steadfast? This is a question about character and intention. What was, or could have been, revealed only on Sunday night to foretell this future conduct? 

If there has been a behind-the-scenes political stitch-up, it has been conducted with a level of secrecy not normally a hallmark of Conservative party intrigues. Nothing in the hurried exchanges of ERG Tories suggests they saw this overture coming, or are quite sure what should be the response.

It should also be questioned to what extent the Conservatives really stand to benefit. The threat from the Brexit Party came far less in Tory-incumbent seats. Scarcely a handful of Tory-held seats, mostly seaside towns, were at direct risk through a strong Brexit Party showing. 

The Brexit party’s best hope of denying Johnson a majority/keeping him honest (depending on the precision of the intervention) is in Leave-voting Labour seats. All the available psephology suggests the Brexit Party will attract more voters from those who would otherwise have voted Conservative than from those who would have stuck with Labour. Whilst the possibility of one or two isolated upsets exists, the current data supports the assumption that the Brexit Party will not win any seats. 

But the withdrawal of candidates from Tory-held constituencies does allow the Brexit Party to focus resources in these key Labour Leave voting seats. A strong Brexit Party showing in them could indeed be the difference between whether the Labour incumbent clings on. 

Labour and the ‘Remain Alliance’ are already responding by positioning the Brexit withdrawal in Tory-held seats as the great dividing line between them and us, moderate middle-of-the-roadsters versus Trump’s agents of influence, light and darkness. A vote for Boris is a vote for Nigel, and also for Donald. Gentle, Conservative-inclined, remainers are the target of this message.

There are risks to the Conservative campaign in this election becoming only about Brexit. There are other lines of attack, not least the Tories’ attempts to paint Jeremy Corbyn as an amateur extremist. Is it advantageous for this to be overshadowed by refighting a binary referendum in the guise of a general election – one in which the margin between Leave and Remain is tighter than would return a working majority?

Thus there should be as much trepidation as relief in CCHQ at Farage’s announcement. The fate of the election and of Brexit was not decided in the Hartlepool Grand Hotel ballroom yesterday. It may, indeed, have got altogether more complicated.

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