IMAGINE being a committed Brexiteer in the Tunbridge Wells parliamentary constituency today. At 4pm, the deadline for the nominations of General Election candidates will pass, and your voting options are set in stone. Obviously, a vote for any of the Leftist parties making up the Remainer-Alliance is out of the question. But the ‘Conservative’ Party candidate standing for re-election in your constituency is the arch-Remainer former Business Secretary Greg Clark.
In 2018 Clark was reportedly Theresa May’s backstairs fixer of pro-EU crony-corporatist Big-Business’s endorsement of, and participation in, that period’s iteration of Project Fear, designed to frighten voters with dire warnings about the danger for jobs and exports of a No-Deal Brexit.
More recently, he was one of the Tory Remainer-rebel MPs suspended and deprived of the party Whip in the House of Commons for voting against the Government on Brexit. Eyebrows were raised when he was among the MPs allowed back into the fold in advance of the election.
Not an appealing prospect for the Tunbridge Wells Brexiteer, is it? Yet that’s the consequence of the concession made to the Conservatives by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage in agreeing to stand down its candidates in all 317 Tory-held seats.
The Brexit Party’s seat-contesting policy since this election was called has oscillated between near-invisibility and overkill. MEP John Longworth’s suggestion of fighting a mere 20 seats was incredibly unambitious for a party purporting to be a major factor in bringing Brexit about, as well as almost guaranteeing that the party would get little if any press coverage and certainly no presence in any TV debates.
At the other end of the scale, Farage’s initially declared aim of contesting up to 600 seats – though not one for himself – erred in the opposite direction. It would have diluted resources instead of concentrating them to greatest effect, and in many cases it would have been a wasted effort. What would have been the point of contesting an inner-London seat that is both solidly Labour and solidly Remain? What conceivable benefit could there have been in fighting a staunch Tory Brexiteer who has consistently voted against May’s (non)-‘Withdrawal’ BRINO, thus running the risk of splitting a genuinely Leave constituency-level majority?
But the decision to withdraw from all 317 Tory-held seats is potentially misguided. As valid as the need to avert the horrendous prospect of a Corbyn Labour or Corbyn-led Remainer Alliance government is, and as much as the risk of jeopardising Brexit happening at all is valid, would have been perfectly justified in declining to withdraw in seats held by Tory continuity-Remainers or reluctant soft-Brexiteers. Despite several of the most prominent usual suspects in this regard standing down, there’s no guarantee that their successors won’t be similarly inclined, given the background of some of them, as has already been remarked.
It’s notable that, as TCW Editor Kathy Gyngell wrote yesterday, the reaction of the Tories to Farage’s concession has not been gratitude and an offer of reciprocation in Leave-voting seats with large Labour majorities which, given their conventional electoral brand-toxicity, the Tories could probably never hope to gain, even with a promise to enact Brexit. Instead they have banked the concession and demanded that the Brexit party stand aside in even more seats. So far, Farage has, quite reasonably in my view, provisionally refused.
On the calculations of TCW fellow-writer Caroline ffiske at the informative Leave Alliance blog, there are about 43 vulnerable seats which the Tories hold with slim majorities, but about 50 seats, almost all Labour-held, which look ripe targets for the Brexit Party, having come first there in the 2019 Euro-elections. In no circumstances should the Brexit Party agree to stand aside in these, to which I would provisionally add the next 50 Labour seats on that target list.
I’m afraid I can see little reason at this stage why ardent Tory Remainer MPs should enjoy immunity from Leaver competition. We risk forgetting too easily how many of them were by no means reluctant to repudiate the manifesto they stood on to get elected in 2017, and, even if not openly opposing a meaningful Brexit by rebelling, nonetheless managed to dilute and soften it by signalling their potential opposition.
It would not therefore seem unreasonable for the Brexit Party to oppose, say, between 30 and 50 Tory-Remainer MPs squatting in the most heavily Leave-voting seats. That would add up to something like 130-150 seats for the Brexit Party to target, but the concession having been made, it would be bad faith to withdraw it, although no more should be extended.
Powerful arguments are already being made against the disenfranchisement in effect of thousands of Leave voters which the Brexit Party’s standing down in all 317 Tory-held constituencies represents. In addition, it puts Leavers in the invidious position of having to decide which is the lesser of two evils. That being the case, it’s hard to see why Brexit Party PPCs now deprived of a candidature shouldn’t stand as Independent Brexiteers.
Couple the still unresolved horse-trading over who should or should not contest which seats with growing disquiet about some of the new candidates being selected in Tory vacancies, and an unwelcome suspicion hardens: that the Tories, despite their pre-election blandishments, are more interested in a ‘metro-liberal’ Tory majority in Parliament than a pro-Brexit majority, and the former even at the expense of the latter.
Time will tell, but I’m becoming more and more convinced that the Tory hierarchy’s strategic priorities are:
1. Ram through something which can plausibly be labelled Brexit so that they can claim to have ‘got it done’, as if it were just a box to be ticked and then forgotten;
2. Having done that, get back to business as usual in terms of a substantially unchanged political system, which suits the entrenched Westminster elite down to the ground.
That, it strikes me, is not the outcome most critics of the last Parliament wanted in calling for its dissolution. If correct, it seems likely that people may opt for their own withdrawal option, manifested by, as our Editor put it yesterday, the attitude of ‘a plague on both their houses’.