Will Boris Johnson Strike a Deal with Nigel Farage?
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, Britain, November 6, 2019. (Toby Melville/Reuters)
If he doesn’t, the Tories could be in trouble in the coming election.
So how do things stand in the United Kingdom now that the Remain Parliament has finally been consigned to the dustbin of history and an election called for December 12? Well, there is the usual airy talk on both sides of the political divide about how the forthcoming U.K. election can’t simply be about Brexit but must instead cover a wide range of political questions. In a purely formal sense, that’s true: The parties will publish manifestos with policies on everything from the National Health Service to global warming.
But the wider truth is that this election will be almost entirely about Brexit because the nation’s sovereignty, for which Brexit is a code word, is what enables Parliament to determine legislation and government policy across the board. Those who oppose Brexit (i.e., U.K. sovereignty) do so either because they think that the EU would pursue particular policies more to their taste or because they have already transferred their allegiance to Brussels, now identify their interests with the EU’s more or less fully, and are therefore happy that it should decide everything.
That’s big stuff, bigger than most of the issues over which the parties traditionally divide, and as a result the parties have started to divide more over Brexit than over other domestic issues. In fact on those other issues all three (or at least two-and-a-half) U.K. national parties increasingly sound like different wings of a single Social Revolutionary party devoted to diversity, massive spending, and larger and more caring government, while differing only on how (or whether) to pay for it. Boris Johnson, for instance, just announced his government will ban “fracking,” which puts him aboard the Green Express alongside all other parties in rejecting the second coming of North Sea Oil — of which, until now, most Tories have been enthusiastic advocates. Johnson also distributes other people’s money with all the panache of a drunken leader of the Labour party.
But the differences among the parties on Brexit are deep and bitter along the following spectrum. Nigel Farage’s Brexit party is for a “clean break” Brexit that would free Britain from any rules, regulation, or tariffs emanating from Brussels. The Tories are for a gradual Brexit smoothed by a withdrawal agreement with Brussels that will allegedly lead to a future EU–U.K. free-trade agreement with minimal disruption of trade. The Liberal Democrats are against Brexit altogether and pledge to remain in the EU whatever the voters want. Labour is for a new workers’ Brexit negotiated by the next Labour government which would, however, hold a second referendum on its own deal and might advise the electorate to vote against it.
These different approaches correspond broadly to Out (Brexit party), Half-Out (Tories), In (Liberal Democrats), and Stuck Forever in a Revolving Door (Labour).
If that sounds confusing, remember that until June 26, 2013, all three parties were officially in favor of remaining inside the EU and had most of their MPs either affirmatively enthusiastic or resigned to the fact. So there are a lot of MPs who now feel like aliens in the parties where they have lived most of their political lives, and a greater number of voters and party activists who feel that they have come home after a long forced march in captivity. The overall result is a combination of realignment and nervous breakdown in all parties.
Liberal Democrats feel the least angst on such grounds. With only a few exceptions, both Lib-Dem MPs and party activists strongly favor Remain. They are now a Remain party without apology and by any means necessary.
Labour’s extraordinary contortions, on the other hand, reflect the fact that MPs and party activists have shifted sharply to Remain in recent decades, leaving about 40 percent of traditional Labour voters who support Leave, generally in Northern working-class constituencies, feeling politically homeless or about to be. It’s an inconvenient fact that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn seems to be among these pro-Leave Labourites in his heart. That’s one reason for the incoherence of Labour’s Brexit policy.
It’s the Tories who have suffered the deepest and most bitter divisions, however. In the last three years, the party has seemingly gone from being a Remain stronghold with a large minority of Leavers into an unambiguously Leaver party with a small, reluctant, and slightly bewildered minority of Europhiliacs. That transformation is less dramatic than it seems, because Remainers were always stronger in the leadership and in Parliament than among ordinary MPs and in the grass-roots. Thus the dissident Tories who sought to block Brexit and who are not standing for reelection (at least as Tories) were drawn disproportionately from the cabinet and lower ministerial ranks. Some lost the party whip over their rebellions; some have switched to the Lib-Dems; other have self-deported into retirement. Today, Philip Hammond — the second-most-powerful figure in Theresa May’s cabinet as the chancellor who had quietly blocked most Brexit preparations — announced he would not contest his safe Tory seat. At the top of the Tory party there’s been a changing of the guard.
And it was achieved not by Boris but by the Tory grassroots. Since the days of Margaret Thatcher, herself a Euroskeptic, the Europeanism of the Tory party has been increasingly skin-deep. Rank-and-file opposition to the U.K.’s progressive loss of sovereignty was repressed managerially by the leadership but also appeased. It grew in the shadows. But the Brexit referendum gave that Euroskepticism permission to express itself openly — and when that happened, the Leavers turned out to constitute most of the Tory party in the country and more than half of the back-benchers. Theresa May’s hapless conduct of negotiations with the EU was seen by this new Tory majority as a surrender in stages and enraged it. She avoided a vote of no confidence by the collective body of Tory associations — an extraordinary sign of collapse in Tory morale — only by the timely contrivance of promising to resign. Boris promptly emerged as the champion of a Tory party committed to a responsibly gradual Brexit achieved by an EU–U.K. deal that to the surprise of all he then obtained.
Complete harmony on the right had not been restored, however, because in the post-Thatcher years a new conservative party had established itself under the Thatcherite-in-exile, Nigel Farage — first UKIP, now the Brexit party. This party was initially composed of disillusioned Tories, but it also appeals to socially conservative working-class voters outside London who feel betrayed by Labour’s drift to a middle-class radicalism that embraces EU membership with enthusiasm. Together these groups amount potentially to a lot of voters. In the European elections last May, the Brexit party won 31 percent of the vote (to become the largest single party in the European Parliament!) and drove the Tory vote nationally down to 8 percent. And the Brexit party opposes Boris’s deal on the grounds that it leaves us tied to the EU in a complex of rules, regulations, and continuing treaty obligations that amount to a BRINO. (No prizes for guessing that one.) Farage prefers a no-deal Brexit that would free the U.K. from all that at a stroke. He promises to campaign in 600 constituencies on that policy and so against the Tories.
Thus, the conservative pro-Brexit side of British politics enters the election divided. So does the progressive anti-Brexit side, in a slightly different way: The Lib-Dems, the Scottish Nationalists, the Greens, and assorted odds and sods favor the full reversing of Brexit in one way or another, while Labour is wrapping itself in ambiguities in the hope of keeping Labour Leavers while maneuvering crabwise toward Remain in the next Parliament. Both sides of the aisle are looking at strategies of tactical voting that would corral the voters of different Remain parties into the same column to defeat the main Leave party. And, of course, vice-versa. In theory the Remain parties have the more difficult (indeed, near-impossible) task of coordination since Labour, the Lib-Dems, and the Scot-Nats are all fighting each other fiercely for long-term predominance in government whereas the Brexit party is in principle ready to sting and die if Brexit is attained. If Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage could reach some kind of electoral deal — scroll down for what kind — they would very likely get a Tory landslide with Brexit party trimmings.
But that’s not how it’s turning out. Boris rejected some early flirtatious hints from Nigel that a marriage might be arranged. He has continued doing so in the firmest terms. Briefings from senior Tories even suggested that the Brexit party was Toryism’s main enemy — an absurd claim — and that they were determined to destroy it. Nigel responded by promising to campaign for a no-deal Brexit in 600 constituencies, and he’s just embarked on a nationwide tour to make good his threat. He also demanded, quite unrealistically, that Boris should renounce his deal with Brussels as a condition for an alliance (that wasn’t being requested by the Tories). In the last few days, the Tory party’s apparatchiks and media friends further upped the ante by denouncing Farage as seven kinds of a villain — including an insulting comparison by former Tory leader William Hague of Farage to Jeremy Corbyn. And there matters now stand.
* * *
The stakes are high. If an alliance could be established, then a Tory landslide and some kind of Brexit would follow. If not, Boris might well lose the election because of the split Brexit vote and Farage would lose any kind of Brexit. It’s not surprising, therefore, that a national poll of supporters of both parties shows that 70 percent of Tories and 81 percent of Brexiteers would support a pact, with only 8 and 6 percent of them, respectively, opposed. So what separates the combatants that’s so important as to risk these defeats?
There are two obvious grounds for hostility. The first is the quality of Boris’s Brexit deal. That’s an article (and a long one) in itself. I will sidestep it here and refer you, gentle reader, to an article by Martin Howe, the president of Lawyers for Britain, who has been the most consistently prudent and reliable commentator on this topic. You will find his entire judgment here, but I will summarize it for you in two excerpts:
The revised deal is still overall a bad deal. It lands us unconditionally with huge financial obligations for nothing concrete in return, beyond the opportunity to negotiate a trade deal which we would be able to negotiate anyway.
And, or rather, but:
I can understand a political judgment that the revised deal is still a bad deal, but is tolerable as a price for the greater prize of the United Kingdom regaining our freedom after Brexit.
That’s where Howe himself ends up. Since he is the kind of scrupulous writer who gives the reader the evidence on which to reach a different conclusion, you may reasonably decide that Farage is right. My own sense is that it’s a choice between the disruptions and hardships of a short, sharp, no-deal Brexit and the long, agonizing struggle needed to separate Britain gradually from the legal and bureaucratic coils of the Euro-Octopus. Temperament as much as the evidence may determine anyone’s choice.
The second ground for conflict is Boris’s apparent belief that he can win an election without the help of the Brexit party and thus dispatch — for good — a serious problem that previous Tory leaders left for him: namely, the existence of a populist conservative party to his right that limits his future options on any number of issues. But he may be reckless on the first challenge and mistaken on the second.
Boris is enjoying leads in national opinion polls that range from 5 to 12 percent over Labour. That must tempt him to recklessness. But this will not be an election decided by a uniform national “swing” from left to right. Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University, our premier psephologist (you’re reading Bill Buckley’s National Review — look it up), predicts that an unprecedented number of voters will cast ballots for neither of the two main parties. That alone will change the outcome in seats that might otherwise fall to a national swing. In addition, dedicated Remainers will be voting tactically in order to defeat the local Tory candidates. Already, an early poll of individual constituencies by Survation shows one Plymouth seat vulnerable to such voting where the Tory candidate, a strong Leaver, has accordingly made overtures to the Brexit party not to put up anyone against her. There will be more such cases in the next six weeks. All of this is playing out before the campaign, with its inevitable thrills and spills, has scarcely started. Boris’s deal, only now getting detailed scrutiny, is plainly open to serious attack as Howe’s article demonstrates. Nigel Farage, who is an effective campaigner, will subject it to merciless criticism around the country.
Vilifying him will not work, since voters know that he is not Jeremy Corbyn but has instead played a massive role in advancing Brexit from the periphery to the center of politics. Propaganda has to have some slight resemblance to the truth. And Farage is popular with the grassroots in both parties. In short, Boris and the Tories cannot take victory for granted. And if they fail to win this election, they will have the Brexit party on their tail more or less indefinitely and not necessarily as a minor party.
The way for Boris to handle both challenges is, oddly enough, by the same policy: reaching an electoral deal with Nigel. To remove one inevitable objection, neither man can be expected to compromise on his central Brexit platform. But that isn’t necessary since what is required is not a common policy platform but an electoral deal. Put simply, the Tories would not put up candidates in the 44 Labour-held seats in which UKIP (the Brexit Party’s predecessor) came second to Labour in the 2015 election. The Brexit party in return would not run candidates against the Tories in a specified number of seats — ranging from the 75 seats where UKIP came second to the Tories in 2015 to — more plausibly — every U.K. seat apart from the agreed 44. The practical advantages of this deal are obvious; the moral justification would be that both parties want to secure Brexit above all but accept also that conservative divisions over the best kind of Brexit should be represented in the House of Commons (and perhaps even on the government benches).
Both men would gain, and not merely by getting Brexit done. The advantages to Nigel Farage are obvious. He gets to lead a parliamentary party which may have more MPs than either the Lib-Dems or the Scot-Nats. Boris gains because he gets allies pressing for a stronger Brexit on his right to balance the remnant of (covert) Remainers on the Tory left still pressing for concessions to Brussels. He thereby strengthens his hand in dealing with his own majority party and with Brussels until a Brexit deal of some kind or another finally gets done.
But does Boris not then have the Brexit party hanging around the Commons to limit his freedom to maneuver on all other policies? That fear is what probably motivates the otherwise risk-laden refusal of the Tories to talk turkey with the Brexit party. If so, they should examine the history of their own party. Twice in the last 140 years a tired and aimless Tory party has been reinvigorated by an alliance with a breakaway group of former opponents who have joined them on a great national issue. The first occasion was in the 1880s — read Andrew Roberts’s masterly biography of Lord Salisbury for the dish on that. The second was in 1931, when the opposition Tories joined Liberal and Labour MPs (including the first Labour prime minister, Ramsay Macdonald) to form a national government that went on to solve a massive financial crisis and to win the largest majority in U.K. political history. The two minor parties were called the National Liberals and National Labour. The latter disappeared in the 1935 election, but the National Liberals lingered on until 1968, when they merged formally with the Conservative party, having been informally absorbed by it gradually over the years. I knew MPs who had been elected on a National Liberal and Conservative ticket as late as the early 1980s. By then they were undisguised Tories. But the larger and more representative Tory party created by that merger in 1931 held power in Britain for 47 out of the next 69 years of the 20th century.
In Quadrant, I wrote “Fragments of Future History,” some light-hearted squibs about the possibilities of such an outcome in post-Brexit politics. But there are serious possibilities in it too, if Boris wants to give his sympathy and undoubted imagination full rein. It’s not hard to imagine that once Brexit is settled and no longer a cause of contention between them, Boris might take Nigel out for a series of dinners to discuss future cooperation. At first, the invitation would be flattering but not significant: “My dear fellow, I would like to extend an invitation to you to address the Tory conference this October. You’d get a hero’s welcome, you know. Everyone appreciates what you did to make Brexit a reality. Oh, simply terrific!”
And at dinner on the evening after the Tories gave him an ovation: “Nigel, I’m offering you a peerage — a working one, of course, and a seat in the cabinet. No one else has your political instincts. I rather thought something like, well, deputy prime minister, with two other cabinet seats for Brexiteers? You will! Excellent! Of course, you can lead your own party as long as you wish.”
One year later, when a difficult special election loomed: “Nigel, neither of us can really afford to lose the Oxbridge by-election. And, frankly, our two parties shouldn’t be fighting each other in these wretched by-elections. What about a Tory–Brexit by-election pact — whichever party is the stronger in the constituency gets the backing of the weaker? I thought you’d see it that way.”
Six months later: “My dear fellow, does it really make sense to have two entire party organizations, both holding identical events and both costing money, in order to attack each other? I say: spend all the cash attacking the bally progressives. You were about to say the same thing? I couldn’t be more delighted.”
Some time later: “Nigel, this is a tough call, but what about uniting the Right fully and formally as Stephen Harper did in Canada? It makes sense, doesn’t it, but what would we call the new party? The Democratic Conservative party? I like it, Nigel. It has a nice ring, and it expresses what you and I both bring to the table. Could you bear to take on the party chairmanship and run the next election campaign? It’ll be here before you know it. Well, that’s settled then.”
And so it might be if Boris relents and does what the grass-roots who put him in Downing Street want him to do. It wouldn’t happen in quite the easy way that I fantasize about. But I put the name of Stephen Harper, now the chairman of the International Democrat Union of parties of the democratic right, into the fantasy because Mr. Harper is a good model for both Nigel and Boris. He split the Canadian Right by helping to found the Reform party that reduced the Progressive Conservatives to two parliamentary seats — and then united the Right again on more conservative terms by merging Reform with the remnant of the Progressive Tories to form the Conservative Party of Canada and to win three successive terms of office.
Nigel did the first; Boris can do the second. But only with the help of Nigel.