A First Past the Post electoral system like ours is not designed for multi-party politics. But the norm-destroying, Constitution-shredding beast that is Brexit pushed us at several points over the summer to a predicted four-way election tie, which would result in an almighty dog’s dinner of a hung Parliament.
Swathes of Leave voters saw Theresa May’s Conservatives as being unsatisfactorily committed to upholding the holy Brexit mandate which, given the multiple delays to exit day and the alleged softness of her deal, is not an entirely unreasonable position. Millions, therefore, flocked to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Meanwhile, Labour frustrated its Remain-leaning supporters with its excruciatingly sluggish trudge towards a People’s Vote endorsement. Inevitably, it lost a sizeable chunk of its voters’ backing to the explicitly Europhilic Liberal Democrats.
Since Boris Johnson came to power, a degree of normality has been restored to the polls, with the Conservatives pulling out in front and the Brexit Party left in the dust. The Vote Leave Prime Minister is seen by enough people as being on the same side as the anti-May Tory Spartans to allow him to restore his party’s Brexiteer credentials.
This pronounced shift towards the Leave end of the Brexit spectrum may have caused a small number of Remain-leaning Tories to drop off the back end and join the Lib Dems, but not to any notable electoral consequence. Boris has probably lost more MPs than voters to the t-shirt-wearing #StopBrexit crew.
Johnson’s firm Brexit stance, then, has resulted in a significant net electoral benefit for the Conservatives, who have been restored as the mainstream Leave choice, relegating the Brexit Party to a niche irrelevancy. All Farage can do is call relentlessly for the hardest of all Brexits—No Deal—which, now that there is a Tory deal, is impossible.
This week, Farage called on Johnson to ditch his deal and plump for No Deal, nobly offering not to field candidates in some seats in return. Senior Conservatives have repeatedly rejected the undoubtedly selfless proposal of an electoral pact with the Brexit Party numerous times before; why they would ever sign up to that same pact while also tearing their party limb from limb for no earthly reason by endorsing No Deal remains unclear.
The Brexit Party only works when the Conservatives are in crisis. Now, the party is united behind Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement. Remainer rebels are independent or Lib Dem, and Spartans tempted by WTO terms are kept in line by the threat of having the whip removed. The Brexit Party, therefore, is left without a raison d’être.
Cue manic existential floundering as Farage finds himself endorsing the Benn Act and apparently supporting an extension of Article 50. The Brexit Party has no purpose; the choice in the election is clearly between Johnson’s deal and Corbyn’s referendum, and since Farage cannot bring himself to endorse either of those paths, his fledgeling political project is consigned to oblivion. An endorsement from the most powerful man in the world (and least popular man in Britain) will be seen as one of many nails in the coffin.
Nonetheless, Farage is launching himself into the deep end of this election head-first. Even now, before the Conservative campaign has begun, fewer than one in four Leave voters support him. This week he announced that he would be concentrating on Labour heartlands including northeast England, the Midlands, Wales and east London.
If a Tory-Brexit pact were on the table, this strategy would make a great deal of sense. Those Labour voters are highly unlikely to vote Conservative, even in times as extraordinary as these, but might consider voting for a heritage-free, Brexit-focussed party.
However, as has repeatedly been made agonisingly clear by the government, no such pact is under consideration. The proposal deserves about as much attention as the proposal that Farage should be appointed the UK’s ambassador to the US; or, as President Trump infamously suggested, its chief Brexit negotiator. (For a foreign head of state, the Commander-in-Chief’s name crops up worryingly often in Brexit discourse, especially where Farage is concerned.)
Since the Conservatives will, of course, not be laying any palm leaves for Nigel Farage, no matter the dynamics of the constituency concerned, his proposal makes him look about as on the ball as a dead seal. The omnishambles of an election strategy from the Brexit Party manages to make a hard Brexit more difficult to execute and a referendum (via Labour) more likely.
The Lib Dems are most likely to find themselves holding the parliamentary balance of power come Friday 13 December but electorally, it could well be the last dregs of Farage’s support that determine whether Johnson or Corbyn sets up shop in Downing Street before Christmas. There is an outside chance that Farage could be solely responsible for carting Jeremy Corbyn into Number 10.
Perhaps more likely is the possibility that the Conservatives will be returned as the largest party but robbed of their majority by Farage’s maniacal flailing. In that situation, Johnson might well find himself phoning Jo Swinson and selling his soul in order to stay in government.
Boris Johnson being forced to hold a second Brexit referendum by the Lib Dems, possibly resulting in Brexit being cancelled, would complete a truly remarkable legacy arc for Nigel Farage.