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Johnson’s latest squeeze
What a difference a week makes. Last Monday, perhaps drunk on personal praise from his “friend” in the White House, Nigel Farage was the very picture of a cocksure, confident disrupter. If the Tories refused his offer of a ‘Leave alliance’, he was ready to tear the house down and stand 600 Brexit Party candidates across the country.
Today, after huge pressure from within and without his own party, the bravado was gone. Farage lamely retreated from a fight with the Conservatives, vowing to “concentrate our total effort into all of the seats held by the Labour party”. In our current age of electoral arms races, it was a rare example of unilateral political disarmament. Farage the CND-er, who knew?
Well, Boris Johnson knew. Love him or loathe him, the PM has in recent weeks proved he knows how to negotiate, and how to create room for all sides to save face. He charmed and disarmed the hardline European Research Group and Leo Varadkar (uniting them in throwing the DUP under the bus) and now he’s done it to Farage.
With the Brexit Party, Johnson was in an even stronger position. Farage’s utterly naive demand that the Tories should actually stand down candidates was always bizarre given that the party of government could never do such a thing.
But the PM (who has never directly attacked Farage since he entered Downing Street) gave the former UKIP leader a ladder to climb down on Sunday night, by bigging up his free trade deal credentials and by vowing “we will not extend the transition period beyond the end of 2020”. No-deal was suddenly a threat again, and even the hint of it was enough to get Farage on board.
Jeremy Corbyn was swift to pounce on the “Trump alliance” and it’s true that some Labour voters who were tempted by Farage’s party now know for certain how close he is to the Tories. In some Labour-Tory marginals, the message “Vote Farage, get Johnson” (coined by the canny John McDonnell) may well be enough to cause Labour Leavers to stick with the habit of a lifetime.
Yet for many Labour Leavers, they had already voted Farage and got Johnson this summer. Their votes for the Brexit Party in the Euro elections was just one of the reasons why the PM ended up as PM. What will really worry Labour is the threat that its traditional voters may now indeed vote Tory for the first time (having been deterred by Theresa May) in key seats.
The most startling poll since this election was called is the new Centre for Towns/YouGov survey showing how Labour support has been squeezed in the small and large towns any party needs to win a Commons majority. And even in the big cities, Labour is down while the Lib Dems have surged. In several of the micro-marginal seats that Labour took from the Tories in 2017, the party looks particularly vulnerable.
It’s for that reason that Johnson will be keen to pile the pressure further on Farage. With Tory supporters more likely than Labour to support the Brexit Party, he needs every vote he can get. As we report tonight, Conservative candidates are warning that Farage needs pull candidates in key Labour seats too. The former Kipper’s humiliating U-turn of today could just be a taster of things to come.
Many in the party believe that by Thursday (the final date for nominations), Farage will have had to back down even further. Could he end up fielding contenders in just a handful of Labour seats (where the Tories have just paper candidates)? Don’t bet against it. This is the ‘squeeze election’ with Labour and the Conservatives’ fate determined by how much they can squeeze support for the Lib Dems and the Brexit party in those crucial Lab-Con marginals.
McDonnell said the voters “don’t like backroom deals” (even though the Greens announced they would help Labour unseat Iain Duncan Smith by not contesting his seat). Yet if Labour does indeed suffer in this election from the pincer movement of both a ‘Leave alliance’ and a ‘Remain alliance’, I suspect electoral reform will be firmly back on Labour’s agenda. McDonnell himself has been one of the warmest supporters of reform.
Not so long ago (just four months ago in fact), Farage too was talking about the need for electoral reform. But the first past the post system has forced him to accept the brute reality of British general elections. He’s had no choice but to effectively put his trust in Johnson that he will deliver Brexit, any kind of Brexit. Like many others, he’s had to become a ‘Boris be-Leaver’.
Former Tory MP Nick Boles said on Monday that the PM was “a compulsive liar who has betrayed every single person he has ever had any dealings with, every woman who has ever loved him…” Yet the Johnson charm has worked extremely well in recent months. He wooed his MPs, he wooed his party members, and now Nigel Farage is his latest squeeze, in both senses of the word.
If Johnson does indeed extend that transition period (as many expect he’ll have to do), Farage will join the long list of his jilted political partners. But by then, the PM will have secured a Tory majority for five long years. And it will be far too late for the Brexit Party, if it even exists a year from now, to do a damned thing about it.
Quote Of The Day
“By giving Boris half a chance, by keeping him honest and holding him to account... this announcement today prevents a second referendum from happening.”
Nigel Farage finally capitulates to the PM
Monday Cheat Sheet
Jeremy Corbyn demanded that Boris Johnson should chair an emergency Cobra meeting to coordinate the response to flooding in the north. Within minutes, No.10 announced the PM would indeed hold such a meeting on Tuesday. Labour said: “If these floods had happened in Surrey, this would have happened five days ago.”
A Jeremy Corbyn-led government would make ‘collective’ decisions about when to use nuclear weapons, Emily Thornberry suggested. Labour should be deliberately “ambiguous” about the circumstances in which it would ever deploy the UK’s Trident weapons system, she added.
Labour and the Tories both offered the armed forces new policies to mark Armistice Day. The Tories promised to look at Human Rights Act exemptions to protect veterans from ‘vexatious’ legal action. Labour pledge improved support for forces children and better wages.
The Liberal Democrats went to the High Court to file a judicial review of ITV’s decision to exclude Jo Swinson from the channel’s ‘head-to-head’ election debate. The SNP said it showed ‘the utter hypocrisy of the Lib Dems’ because they wanted Nicola Sturgeon excluded from a three-way debate too.
The Lib Dems’ Sam Gyimah proposed a £10,000 grant for every adult in England to put towards education and training.
What I’m Reading
The Dark Side Of The Economist’s Faith In Liberalism - New Yorker
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