What Boris Johnson owes Nigel Farage

Rather than with a devalued and discredited knighthood or peerage, the best way for Boris Johnson to repay his indebtedness to Nigel Farage for enabling both his premiership and his election victory would be to implement the Tory manifesto’s promises of reforming and re-democratising our politics.

Note: Longer and updated version of the article originally published at The Conservative Woman on Wednesday 18 December 2019

“Blow, blow, thou winter wind. Thou art not so unkind as man’s ingratitude”  (As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII)

You might think that an overall majority of 80, a number at or even beyond the most optimistic predictions before last Thursday night’s exit poll, and the largest overall majority in Parliament for the Conservative Party since 1987, would have been satisfaction enough.

Apparently not, though, for those elements of the Conservative Party who, after briefly celebrating, reverted to berating Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party for either standing at all, or allegedly depriving them of victory in several other seats retained by Labour, by standing its own candidates there.

For the avoidance of doubt, let me reiterate that I still believe, as I did and argued in mid-November when this dispute came to a head, that both parties were at fault, driven on one side by egotism overriding tactical nous, and driven on the other by a cynical party-advantage aim of desiring a Tory majority in Parliament, even one partly comprising reluctant or soft Brexiteers, rather than a Brexit majority.

I thought Farage’s initial intention to contest up to 600 seats totally unrealistic, and his subsequent decision to stand aside in all 317 Tory seats – even those held by May-loyalist unreconciled Continuity-Remainers, like Greg Clark in Tunbridge Wells – misguided, because it effectively disenfranchised Tory Leave-voters there.

But I also condemned Farage’s decision to stand against Remain-voting but Brexit-supporting Labour MPs – I genuinely regret that Caroline Flint won’t be in the Commons to help a sensible Labour Party rid itself of the cancer of Corbynism – and I criticised the Tories’ refusal to withdraw their candidates from the long-time Labour seats where the psephology suggested they had the least chance of unseating Labour.

Well, as we now know and should admit, some of those psephological assumptions were wrong. And yes, an even lower seat total for Labour than its 203, its smallest since 1935, would have been most welcome: the greater the scale of the shellacking visited upon Labour by the voters, the greater the chances of Corbyn and his hard-Left cult being consigned to the extremist wilderness where they belong.

But what appears to be the widespread conclusion, that in most if not all cases where a winning Labour vote was less than the combined Tory and Brexit Party vote, it was the latter’s candidacy which was solely to blame, looks unduly simplistic, not to say more than a little self-serving.

That widespread conclusion itself appears based on an assumption that every Brexit Party vote, absent a Brexit Party candidate, would have gone to the Tories. Really? Is it not at least possible that, in several instances, voters prepared to break, for the first time, a generations-long family, workplace and community tradition of voting Labour might have been prepared to plump for the Brexit Party, but voting Tory would have been a step too far?

That’s certainly a feasible interpretation of the result in Barnsley Central, where the Brexit Party candidate came 2nd, getting fully 40 per cent more votes than did her Conservative Party opponent, only 42 per cent of whose votes going to the Brexit Party instead would have deposed the sitting Labour MP.

In neighbouring Barnsley East, where the Brexit Party candidate also came 2nd, a mere 31 per cent of the Tory vote going to the Brexit Party instead would have captured the seat and defenestrated yet another Labour MP.  Arguably, in those two Barnsley constituencies, it’s the Tories who should have stood aside. 

In Sunderland Central, the respective changes in vote share probably tell a more nuanced story than the actual result. It looks very like Labour’s 13.4 per cent drop in vote share mostly went to the Brexit Party, whose vote share went up by 11.6 per cent, compared to the Tories’ uplift of a mere 2.0 per cent.

Elsewhere, local factors may have prevailed. Consider the two constituencies serving Newport, South Wales, of which I do have some personal knowledge, despite it being a long way away from my South Coast lair. It’s a microcosm, but potentially very illustrative.

Newport East and West results comp

In both Newport East and Newport West, the combined Tory and Brexit Party vote exceeded the winning Labour vote.  Going along with the desired narrative, it would be tempting, even easy, to draw the obvious conclusion: that the Brexit Party stopped the Tories capturing both seats. But it might also be wrong, because there are important local factors at play.

In Newport West, the Tory candidate Matthew Evans was the very popular former Mayor of Newport, while the Labour MP was new and thus relatively unknown, the seat having for years been the personal fiefdom of that irascible old Labour dinosaur Paul Flynn, who died as recently as February this year. In Newport East, however, the Labour incumbent since 2005, Jessica Morden, is apparently regarded there as being good constituency MP.

Had there been a local tactical alliance, the Brexit Party could have stood down in Newport West to give Evans a clear run, while the Tories could have stood down in Newport East to let the Brexit Party, which obtained a higher vote-share there than it did in Newport West, to have a crack at unseating Morden.  The likely result would have been two pro-Brexit MPs in the new House of Commons, one Tory and one Brexit Party, and two more seats added to the scale of Labour’s defeat. Instead, Newport still has two Labour MPs. 

The Conservative Woman‘s Editor Kathy Gyngell was entirely correct to argue, as she did on Monday 16th December, that Johnson owes Farage more gratitude for the latter’s tactical mis-steps than the curmudgeonly recrimination proffered so far. On the other side of the political aisle, even The Guardian agreed that Johnson owes a debt to Farage for his own triumph

Only within sections of the Conservative Party does this appear to go unrecognised. It could be merely the arrogance and sense of entitlement to which elements of the party appear prone: but on the other hand, it could be yet another manifestation of the Tory Party’s default “party before country” survival instinct, which makes it so simultaneously hostile to, yet fearful of, potential competitors.         

So let’s have no knighthood or peerage for Farage in faux-recompense, please: there’s something else which would be a far more deserving, and widely-beneficial, expression of appreciation.

In the latter part of my plea on the morning of Election Day, I wrote that the Brexit vote was more than just a demand to leave the European Union: that voting for that specific policy was also a proxy for a strident demand for a different way of doing politics, vesting more power in the people at the expense of a managerial, technocratic elite.

The “Protect our Democracy” section (pp 47-48) of the Tory manifesto does pledge a start on this, with the absolute minimum, but there’s more to do. For Boris to parallel Brexit with a comprehensive re-democratisation of British politics would be a discharge of his indebtedness to Farage far beyond any mere gong, bauble or ermine-trimmed gown.

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