In a U-turn from his announcement last week, Eurosceptic populist Nigel Farage declared on Monday that his Brexit Party will not field candidates in Conservative-held seats. He also claimed he was offered a peerage – to make him Lord Farage – last week, but said that hadn’t swayed his decision.
In the latest twist in a Europe-focused election campaign in the United Kingdom, Farage said his party’s considerable resources – the sources of which attracted an Electoral Commission investigation earlier this year – would be focused on Labour-held seats.
“The Brexit Party will not contest the 317 seats the Conservative won at the last election,” Farage told supporters in the northeastern town of Hartlepool.
It is exactly the sort of seat that will be targeted by Farage’s upstart party. Currently held by Labour’s Mike Hill, who recently attracted headlines when he was briefly suspended by the country’s main opposition party over allegations of sexual harassment, the Conservatives would need a hefty 18 percent swing to take the seat.
But Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice – a heavy-hitter in Leave circles, having founded the Leave.EU campaign along with fellow “Brexit Bad Boy” Arron Banks – will be hoping to capitalise on the constituency’s 70 percent Leave vote to connect with a local electorate with an ingrained distrust of the Conservatives. The former industrial town of Hartlepool has been a Labour seat since the constituency was formed in 1974, but anti-Europe sentiment runs high here, with the UK Independence Party – Farage’s former political project – coming second in the 2015 election.
Farage last week threatened to field 600 candidates across the country, which observers said risked splitting “the Brexit vote” and guaranteeing a hung parliament. His announcement on Monday could well be a turning point in the election, and leaves the door open to a potential coalition between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party, should the latter pick up any seats.
“In a sense we now have a Leave alliance,” said Farage on Monday. “We’ve just done it unilaterally.”
Farage himself, having failed seven times to win a seat in Parliament, will not stand in this election, choosing instead to take on a national campaigning role.
“Our action prevents a second referendum from happening,” Farage told supporters. “We will also take on the rest of the ‘remainer’ parties.”
In recent weeks, Farage – a former commodities trader – has rallied supporters by railing against Prime Minister Boris Johnson‘s European Union divorce deal, vehemently describing it as “not Brexit”. He had first demanded Johnson drop the agreement entirely to secure the Brexit Party’s support, before softening his stance to ask for changes to be made to the “political declaration” part of the deal.
After Johnson’s firm rejection of both demands, Monday’s announcement risks isolating Farage’s hardcore supporters who favour a “no-deal” withdrawal from the bloc and see the prime minister’s concessions over Northern Ireland in particular as a betrayal.
Speaking to the Daily Mirror, a left-leaning British tabloid, Farage said he had been offered a peerage – that is, the title “Lord Farage” and lifetime membership of the House of Lords, the UK’s unelected second parliamentary chamber – but had turned it down.
“Ridiculous,” the paper reported him as saying. “The idea they can buy me [with] a high-paid job; but I’m not interested, I don’t want to know.”
Welcoming the Brexit Party’s announcement, Johnson said Farage’s strategy shift was “recognition that another hung parliament is the greatest threat to Brexit”.
Yet while the move may solidify the Conservatives’ chances of remaining the largest party in Parliament, and ensures they will not lose seats to the Brexit Party, it does make it more difficult for Johnson to gain seats, analysts point out.
“In terms of numbers of votes, the Brexit Party is of much more danger to the Tories than to Labour,” tweeted Jon Worth of the College of Europe in Bruges.
“So if there’s a Brexit Party candidate in a Labour-held Labour-Tory marginal, this helps Labour – as Brexit takes votes from the Tories, and Labour wins the seat.”