Nigel Farage’s European election-winning machine is the guest that has not yet turned up to the 2019 general election party. This can only be because it has certain fundamental questions still to settle about the nature of its campaign. Such as how many seats to fight. And whether to adopt a strategy of being slightly cuddly towards the Tories or one of strict “equi-hostility” towards all parties that do not back its “clean break” version of Brexit. Which, in effect, would mean all other parties.
Reports in the Financial Times and elsewhere in recent days suggest that despite selecting almost a complete slate of candidates, the party is likely to contest only a small proportion of parliamentary seats and may even formally stand most of its candidates down. Farage is even said to be contemplating not contesting a seat himself.
This hasn’t stopped chatter on social media among keen Brexiteers about how great it would be if the Conservatives went into coalition with Brexit party MPs after the election, with Nigel Farage as foreign secretary and Richard Tice as chief secretary to the Treasury et cetera.
I am sorry to disappoint all the players of this game of fantasy Cabinets, but it is most unlikely there will be any formal pact between the Conservatives and the Brexit party in the run up to the election, still less a coalition between them afterwards.
Nigel Farage and his cohorts went in very hard against Boris Johnson’s new Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels, seeking to brand it both a complete surrender and also to characterise it as that creature which dwells most threateningly of all in Brexiteer demonology, a “BRINO” (Brexit In Name Only). I was far from the only longstanding Brexiteer to consider this a silly contrivance.
But I would think Nigel still expected some of the “Spartan” Tories, who had opposed May’s deal in all three Commons votes that it faced, to also oppose Boris’s deal. Perhaps he also hoped for a phalanx of those Conservatives who take their Unionism very seriously to join a rebellion because of profound unhappiness in the DUP. This would have given him the prospect of a very marketable “true Brexiteer” cross-party alliance. But it didn’t happen. The entire Tory parliamentary party (sans the anti-Brexit, pro-Benn Act brigade who had lost the whip) united behind the Boris deal.
So now we have a situation where all leading Conservative politicians – including the likes of Priti Patel and Jacob Rees-Mogg – are standing for something inimical to the central aim of the vast majority of Brexit party MEPs. The former are for implementing Boris’s deal to ensure a “smooth” departure. The latter affect to be as hostile towards it as nearly every Brexiteer was towards May’s disastrous deal and will only countenance the so-called ‘clean break’.
So, logically speaking, which sitting Tory MPs can Nigel make a case for giving a free run to on the principled grounds that in his eyes they have been true to Brexit? The answer is none. The very best he could claim is that it would be worth giving a clear run to a few who are in tough fights with outright Remainers from Labour, the Lib Dems or the SNP on the grounds that the new withdrawal agreement is only the “second worst deal in history”. But that is hardly a compelling argument.
Which of the 600 or so already-selected Brexit party candidates – most of whom paid £100 a pop just to go through the selection process and are hyped up and ready to go – could reasonably be ordered to stand aside for a Tory who is backing the Boris deal?
Well, knowing Nigel, it is quite possible that a lot will be told to do just that. But if they are, it should be taken more as a sign that he realises his party’s resources are drastically over-stretched, just as they were in Ukip’s campaign in 2015. At that election, Farage’s party succeeded in securing 120 second places but returned only his bitter rival Douglas Carswell to the Commons.
I expect the same remorseless logic of First Past The Post contests – in which past performance is the strongest factor in determining the level of current broadcast media coverage – to sap the profile of the Brexit party, just as it did Ukip four years ago. Time and again we will be reminded that there are only two possible prime ministers in the field: Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn.
In the unlikely event that a cluster of Farageists survive this political Death Valley for insurgent parties and end up getting elected, the chances of them being invited into or being willing to join a coalition in order to implement the very thing they had campaigned against would be virtually nil.
It is just possible a confidence and supply arrangement of the kind the DUP entered into in order to keep Corbyn out of power could be reached. It is also possible that Boris Johnson, if left without a majority, would seek to use the presence of Brexit party MPs to convince the Commons that a No Deal Brexit would really occur if his deal was torpedoed again.
But the truth of it is that there has been a total parting of ways.
When Nigel Farage surfaces to tell us all what he has decided – and ultimately it will be he who decides – about the Brexit party’s general election campaign then it will be best judged as the strategy he believes can protect his own, carefully-nurtured political brand.
And I detect that he is a general whose previous experience of political battles – and of the very different conditions a general election brings compared to a European parliamentary election – leaves him fearful about the likely fate of his forces.
As a keen student of military history, Nigel will surely have in mind the famous remark of the French general Bosquet upon seeing the Charge of the Light Brigade: “C’est magnifique. Mais ce n’est pas la guerre. C’est de la folie.”