The lesson of history? If the forces of Remain don't get their act together, they could be wiped out

As Nigel Farage weighs in behind Boris Johnson, Labour and the Lib Dems must urgently put their bitter disagreements to one side—and do a deal

November 12, 2019
Ramsay MacDonald knew all about political pacts.
Ramsay MacDonald knew all about political pacts.

The first history lesson about political pacts is one to cheer Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. Namely, that secrecy is no problem. The 1903 deal done between Liberal chief whip, Herbert Gladstone, and Ramsay MacDonald of the then-new Labour Representation Committee was very much on the QT. Nobody knew that the deal was done, still less what favours were traded. But what was soon enough evident—in the subsequent 1906 general election—was that 60 per cent of the Labour candidates enjoyed a free run at the Tories, and furthermore that this made a big difference, because over 80 per cent of the 29 Labour MPs eventually elected were returned in seats where the Liberals had stood aside.

A thick fog surrounds yesterday’s sudden decision by the Brexit Party to stand aside in all of the 317 seats that the Conservatives won at the last election. We can’t entirely rule out Farage having had—as he claims—a sudden change of heart about how to do his bit for the Brexit cause, although you would want to keep an eye on post-election appointments to the House of Lords and British embassies before ruling it in. It might also be worth asking whether any Ukip or Conservative donors—including the Russian donors whose identities are allegedly buried in a report which the government is keeping under wraps until after the election—have pulled any strings.

But no matter. None of this murk means that Farage’s move won’t make a difference. And nor does the psephology. Pundits have called so many things wrongly in recent years that they now call nothing at all, instead popping up on the telly to meekly explain that everything is “lot more complicated than you think.” And so it was yesterday. Wise guys and girls lined up to insist that while Farage’s move may have sounded like a big win for Johnson, its real effect was unclear because Johnson’s hopes of a majority rested not on Tory- but Labour-held seats where the Brexit Party was continuing to stand, and potentially thwarting a Conservative breakthrough.

This analysis is woefully poor. For a start, there are still some tribally Labour Leave voters who would never defect to the Conservatives, but might just plump for the Brexit Party. So the effect of Farage’s force continuing to stand in a seat like Wakefield—traditionally Labour, but only narrowly Labour these days—is decidedly ambiguous. Sure, it could sap more support from Johnson’s Tory challenge, but it could equally sap more from Labour. And indeed, the result here was very much the same in 2015 when there was a strong Ukip challenge, as in 2017 when there wasn’t: a narrow Labour majority.

In most seats where the Brexit Party is now stepping aside, however, Johnson enjoys an unambiguous boon. Take Wells in the southwest, one of the top Lib-Dem targets. Had Farage put someone up here, he would have eaten up some chunk of the Tory vote, but next to nothing of the Lib Dems. Stepping down will help the Tories cling on. Likewise in Scotland, where Leavers chalked up 38 per cent of the 2016 vote but Brexiteers get too easily written out of the script, the Brexit Party’s disappearance from the 13 Tory seats might just enable Johnson to cling on in a few of them. Consider Moray. The 2017 Conservative majority is about 4,000; the 2015 Ukip vote was about half that. If Farage had mobilised around 2,000 again, it would surely have come in the main from the Scottish Conservatives, thereby making the seat much harder to hold.

In sum, the big Farage move makes it harder for anyone to dislodge sitting Conservatives, while the effect of continuing to stand in Tory targets could go either way. Seeing as the overall outcome of the election turns not only on Tory advances in targets, but also some potentially challenging Tory defences, the overall effect is clear: a boost for Boris Johnson. And, beyond the arithmetic, the harder-to-quantify “mood” created by the news will further help him mop up the Leave vote. With Farage somewhat less visible, and certainly less audible about the failings of the government’s deal, Johnson will begin to look like the obvious choice to most dedicated Leavers.

All this should terrify anyone who isn’t keen on majority Conservative government, or the hard Brexit that Johnson proposes. The logical response, of course, would be for his opponents to stitch together a non-aggression pact of their own. And for all their differences, one might have thought that anti-hard Brexit liberals and socialists would be able to agree that a hung parliament with a second referendum is preferable to the only realistic alternative of a majority Johnson government.

Such is the mutual loathing between Jo Swinson, Jeremy Corbyn and their tribes, however, this is seen as impossibly difficult. The Lib Dems have stitched things up with the Greens and Plaid Cymru in certain seats, but the latter two parties only matter in a handful of constituencies. The Greens have taken a unilateral lead by stepping aside in favour of the Labour challenge to Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green. But, with nominations closing on Thursday, there is no sign of any co-operation at all between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the only co-operation which is likely to have any bearing on the overall result. There are three anti-Brexit tactical voting operations, but—comically or tragically—they are now “daggers drawn,” offering divergent advice in many seats.


Read: Siobhán Fenton explains what Northern Ireland's Remain pact means for the election

__________________________ The obstacles to any pact are not hard to spot. Swinson’s Lib Dems defend their role in the Cameron/Osborne austerity coalition, whereas Corbyn’s Labour Party has veered off to the left. And Corbyn dragged his feet for so long on the second referendum, that the Lib Dems struggle to compute that he is now committed to one. And there are, undoubtedly, a small number of Labour Eurosceptics and a somewhat larger number of candidates who feel sincerely obliged to honour the original referendum on democratic grounds. The Lib Dems would be unable to endorse either.

But here is the thing: they wouldn’t have to. Having started with one history lesson about political pacts, let me close with another. They don’t have to comprehensive or tidy: they can be patchy and still work well.

In an earlier moment of national crisis, 1931, the supporters of the National Government were bickering all the way up to the close of nominations about who would step aside for whom and where. The prime minister Ramsay MacDonald—the same man who’d stitched up that critical pact in 1903—now found himself being bulldozed by the Tories into dropping some National Labour candidates, and some of those he eventually ran had a pro-National Conservative and in one case a National Liberal rival snapping at their heels. Some didn’t, however, and the National Liberals and Tories generally gave each other a free run. And the result of this scrappy co-operation? The largest majority ever won in a Westminster election, with the anti-National Labour party reduced to 52 seats despite having 31 per cent of the vote.

So pacts matter. If either the Lib Dems or Labour are serious about stopping hard Brexit, it is now urgent that they get on the phone.