A Brexit Party perspective on “splitting the Leave vote” at the general election

A Brexit Party perspective on “splitting the Leave vote” at the general election

Is the Brexit Party going to split the potential “Leave” vote? Will it cost Boris Johnson the election and thus extinguish any hope of achieving Brexit?

These are questions I hear often and see on Twitter regularly, usually emanating from those of a Conservative Party disposition. In one regard it displays an unconscious sense of entitlement, that Brexit is owned by the Conservative Party and no one else; that only the Conservatives can deliver Brexit – when the last three years has tested that theory to destruction.

In another regard it displays a degree of arrogance that amounts to hubris, and hubris is always dangerous for politicians of any colour. All of those who support Leave need to pull back from talk of splitting and instead talk of building.

Evidence for the claim of the Brexit Party splitting the vote often takes the form of quoting this year’s Peterborough and Brecon & Radnorshire by-elections, arguing that had the Brexit Party not contested those seats the Conservatives could have won when instead they lost to Labour and the Liberal Democrats respectively. These examples are disingenuous.

In Peterborough the Brexit Party’s candidate, the local entrepreneur and philanthropist Mike Greene, came a close second. It is fair to claim that had the Conservative candidate not stood then the Brexit Party could have won the Labour-held seat quite comfortably. If any party split the ‘Leave’ vote it was the Conservatives, not the new kids on the block.

In Brecon & Radnorshire the circumstances were naturally different. The reason the Conservatives lost the by-election was that their former leader, Theresa May, agreed to standing the former MP Chris Davies – who had been subject to a successful recall vote – before she demitted office. Had the party stood an entirely new face, the electorate could have found it easier to stay true to the party and secure a victory. Instead, faced with a Tory candidate who many had already petitioned to have removed, enough of the Leave support either voted Brexit Party or stayed at home. Theresa May’s decision was one of self harm to her party, possibly a parting shot at whoever came after her.

So let’s ignore these false examples, for they tell us nothing about the general election. The reality on the ground is that for Boris Johnson to obtain a working majority he must not only gain Conservative seats, but also see the party closest to him suffer a reduction in number. It makes sense for the Conservatives to target 40 or more Labour marginals, especially where those constituencies voted Leave and have Remain-supporting MPs. These constituencies will also be fertile territory for the Brexit Party to contest, as the Brexit Party has found it is especially appealing to traditional working-class Labour voters. What is also possible is that if both the Conservative and Brexit parties stand in those seats, they may split the vote and Labour comes through the middle to hold the seat. It can thus be argued (and is argued) that the Brexit Party should not fight these marginals.

The same argument is put in Tory marginals where Labour or the Liberal Democrats are snapping at the heels of Tory MPs on the basis that “splitting” the Leave vote will hand the seat over to the best-placed Remain challenger. Tactical voting by Remainers might add to this possibility.

As a result of these calculations, a great deal of pressure via the media is being put on Nigel Farage and Richard Tice to pull back from standing Brexit Party candidates across the country. ‘Go and fight Labour seats with Remain-supporting MPs, but lay off seats where Tories might lose or could make gains,’ is the call.

Such a strategy might at first glance look good on paper, but it would actually be counter-productive to the Conservative desire to win an outright majority. Remember, the Conservatives must not only win seats but see Labour lose some. It helps the Conservatives for the Brexit Party to do well by taking as many of Labour’s Leave-supporting seats as possible – most especially where the Conservatives are very far behind.

From my personal experience as a one-time Conservative member for thirty years, who served two terms as a member of the Scottish Parliament and then fought and won a European Parliament seat in Labour’s heartland of the North East of England for the Brexit Party, I know there are many, many Labour voters who will never vote Conservative. They are not backwards at coming forward to tell me this. They will, however, consider however voting for the Brexit Party and in May they turned out in huge numbers to do so.

Labour voters and politicians also tell me privately that if Brexit Party candidates do not stand against Conservatives, it will be taken as proof that Farage’s new party is really the Tories in disguise and this will prevent Labour voters switching to them. It is therefore to be expected – and indeed in the Conservative Party’s own self-interest – that in the hundreds of safe Tory or Labour seats, the Brexit and Tory candidates fight each other.

I know there are many Labour constituencies in the Midlands, Wales, coastal communities and other regions of the UK where similar opportunities for the Brexit Party to those in the North East pertain. If one can argue that standing Brexit Party candidates in Conservative target seats is splitting the Leave vote, then it holds true that were the Conservatives to stand paper candidates in Labour Leave seats that undermine the Brexit Party’s chances, then they are without doubt “splitting the Leave vote” to their own cost.

Yet nowhere do I see it acknowledged on Twitter by those Conservatives I follow that the Tory Party should stand down any of its candidates. This is where we come back to the entitlement and the hubris. It is entirely possible that even if Brexit Party candidates do not contest Conservative target seats but they still face Tory opponents in Labour Leave-supporting seats, then Boris Johnson might yet fail to win enough of his own MPs for an outright majority and not have the benefit of Brexit Party MPs who can support delivering Brexit at Westminster.

Splitting the Leave vote works both ways and it is time for the Conservative Party and its supporters to recognise this.

There is no doubt the Brexit Party has grown quickly enough to be able to stand candidates in every mainland British constituency – and we know that as a national party the Tories have done so at every election since the Unionist Party in Scotland accepted the Conservative name in 1965.

Choosing to not contest every seat would be for both a big ask. Nevertheless, deciding to not stand in certain constituencies but still contest each other in many other seats could maximise both parties’ chances while leaving them free to keep their dignity and defeat the Remain alliance once and for all.

Why should the Brexit Party stand down in places it can win?