Ben Margulies outlines the potential incentives of an electoral alliance between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives for Nigel Farage.
Boris Johnson has demonstrated a willingness, if not an outright preference, for a no-deal Brexit. His decision to prorogue Parliament to limit its chances to legislate against that possibility may constitute a credible warning that he is willing to cross the cliff edge that Theresa May would not. This may not align with the national interest, but it does move the Conservatives closer to the preferences of the Brexit Party and its leader, Nigel Farage MEP.
Unsurprisingly, there has been talk about Farage’s party forming an electoral pact with the Conservatives to avoid a split in the Brexit vote and ensure Britain’s departure from the EU. Peter Kellner discussed this eventuality in The Guardian in July. In September, Guido Fawkes reported that the Brexit Party would enter into a ‘non-aggression pact Leave Alliance’ on the condition that ‘Boris Johnson commits to an unambiguous, No Deal Brexit’. This mirrors an earlier statement by Farage that he would ‘work in tandem’ with the Conservatives for a ‘clean Brexit’. This scenario is popular among Conservative members – 65% back the idea, according to YouGov. Given that the Brexit Party lacks any internal democratic structures or members, Farage need not worry about internal polls in making his decision about a pact, though he may see some defections from his corps of office-holders.
Kellner argues that such a pact would do the Brexit Party little good. The Conservatives would be unlikely to actually surrender many winnable seats; at best, it would give the Brexit Party seats which are safe for Labour. Though the Brexit Party could win these seats as outsiders, as they almost won Peterborough, it is less likely they could do so as allies of the Conservatives. As Tom Quinn points out, a formal alliance would antagonize Labour voters who might vote for a stand-alone Brexit Party candidate, but not a Conservative Party ally. The Brexit Party would lose overall votes and momentum, win few or no MPs, and probably wither as UKIP did.
Kellner is probably right regarding the incentives facing the Brexit Party. However, these are not the same incentives as those facing Nigel Farage, and those incentives might matter more.
Political scientists often argue that political actors are motivated by one or more of three concerns – office, policy and votes. That is, they either want to hold public office and salaries; enact favoured policies; and/or win votes. These interact and influence each other, but they can also produce trade-offs. Nick Clegg traded policies for office, and lost votes. This framework is often used to describe why parties form alliances, or coalition governments.
For the Brexit Party, Kellner argues, an electoral arrangement offers neither a chance for votes (it will lose them overall) or office (they won’t get many winnable seats). As for policy, the Brexit Party has despatched May and brought the UK to the edge of its preferred Brexit outcome. It is hard to see how much more policy influence it could have. Sacrificing itself to aid a radicalised Conservative Party in winning an absolute majority may be the most effective way for it to achieve its policy goals.
For Nigel Farage, on the other hand – and for many of those who have attained public office on his ticket – the incentives are a bit different. Britain is unusual in the way its populist radical-right parties have evolved. In most European countries, these sorts of parties focus heavily on immigration and authoritarian nationalism, develop structures and formal organisations, and over time become stable brands. They develop corps of professional politicians, experiment with new messages about economics, and durable relations with other parties.
In Britain, however, both UKIP and the Brexit Party have always been single-issue parties, focused on the European Union and Britain’s departure from it. When the Tories captured that issue with the Brexit referendum, UKIP evaporated. If Brexit actually happens under Boris Johnson, the Brexit Party will probably meet the same fate. YouGov polling confirms that, once Brexit is delivered, its share of the vote falls to 9-12% (depending on who leads the Tories). It will leave behind as its legacy a Conservative Party that is increasingly defined by social conservatism and Euroscepticism, one sharing a certain populist hostility towards elites and institutions that frustrate the popular will. In other words, a Conservative Party not much unlike UKIP.
Such a Conservative Party would be fertile ground for Farage and other Brexit Party candidates. As individual politicians, they could seek votes and office either through a pact with the Conservatives in the next general election or, further down the line, as Conservatives themselves. This would give them a berth in a party that, unlike the Brexit Party, will still be viable after Brexit. And their main policy goal would be achieved.
As for Farage’s personal ambitions, they would be perfectly well served in the Conservative Party. In a June 2019 poll, YouGov found that 46% of Conservative Party members would be happy if Nigel Farage became leader of that party. Admittedly, that would risk a clash with Boris Johnson, a similarly populist figure, but it would be a better route to power than leading a single-issue party when that party has lost its ownership of its only significant issue.
There are precedents in British history for the merger of allied parties. The Conservatives have twice absorbed breakaways from the centre-left Liberal Party, both after long periods of electoral alliance. The party’s formal name, the Conservative and Unionist Party, reflects the first of these unions, when the anti-Irish Home Rule Liberal Unionists united with the Tories in 1912.
All that said, an alliance might not happen. Johnson has signalled that he would prefer a no-deal Brexit to any plausible deal with the European Union (since he has demanded the EU remove the backstop). However, that is not the same as saying he would be willing to campaign for a no-deal Brexit as a favoured outcome, which is what Farage wants. In his statement on September 2, Johnson stated that he still wanted to negotiate with the EU. The key question is whether Farage needs Johnson to publicly renounce any deal for his support, or whether he can accept a Johnson government that commits to a highly intransigent negotiating stance – which would lead to no deal anyway.
Nor would a Brexit-Conservative alliance necessarily rid Britain of populists agitating to the right of the Tories. As Fintan O’Toole so elegantly noted, Brexit won’t solve the cultural conflicts or economic malaise that produced it. There has long been a pool of extreme-right voters, enough to support the National Front, the British National Party and what’s left of UKIP. The left-behind will still be left behind, and their protests votes, added to that hard right, will be enough to keep a foothold in British politics.
Will Nigel Farage still be leading them? Perhaps he will retire after Brexit. However, he has plenty of incentive, at least from the standpoint of personal office-seeking ambitions, to lead his followers into the great Conservative ark – with himself at their head.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Gage Skidmore via CC-BY-SA.