Nigel Farage on Monday gave Boris Johnson a boost by announcing his Brexit party will not contest any of the 317 seats won by the Conservatives at the last UK general election, and also hinted he could yet withdraw more parliamentary candidates.
The Brexit party leader admitted his decision to field candidates in about 300 rather than 600 constituencies was “not easy”, but he claimed the U-turn on his previous pledge to fight seats across Britain was intended to ensure that the prime minister was able to deliver Brexit.
Crucially, Mr Farage said his party would contest Labour-held constituencies at the December 12 election, in a move that could split the Leave vote in key target seats for the Tories and thereby undermine Mr Johnson’s hopes of winning a House of Commons majority.
But Mr Farage refused to deny that he could further help Mr Johnson by standing down Brexit party candidates in Labour seats. “I’ve not considered this at this moment in time,” he said. “But there isn’t much time.”
The Brexit party leader claimed that he had been offered a peerage by unnamed Tory figures last Friday but turned it down. “I’m not asking for anything,” he said.
James Cleverly, Conservative chairman, insisted there had not been any backroom deals with the Brexit party.
Mr Farage’s decision to abandon half the electoral battleground in mainland Britain — announced in a brief speech to Brexit party activists in Hartlepool in north-east England — was a humbling moment for the former leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence party.
But the move by the Brexit party to stand aside in Tory-held seats will assist Mr Johnson in fending off the Liberal Democrats’ challenge in parts of southern England, and also help to stymie any Labour push in Conservative constituencies with relatively small majorities.
Mr Farage will now be under pressure from pro-Brexit campaigners, including the rightwing press, to withdraw his candidates from Labour seats that Mr Johnson is targeting — notably Leave-supporting constituencies in northern England, the Midlands and Wales — before Thursday’s deadline for nominations.
He said he had taken his decision on Sunday night with Richard Tice, Brexit party chairman, after concluding he could not be responsible for splitting the Leave vote and allowing pro-Remain Lib Dem candidates to be elected.
Mr Farage added he had been reassured by a video by Mr Johnson, put out by the Conservatives on Sunday, which committed the Tories to ending a Brexit transition period by December 2020 and seeking a “Canada plus” style trade deal with the EU.
However, the prime minister has made such commitments before and Mr Farage, who is not standing as a candidate at the election, was accused by Labour MP David Lammy of “bottling it” by not contesting Tory-held seats.
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National party, said Mr Farage’s self-proclaimed “unilateral Leave alliance” with Mr Johnson confirmed that “the Tory party has now effectively become the Brexit party”.
The Brexit party came first in May’s European elections but opinion polls have shown a steady decline in support since that high point when it secured 32 per cent of the vote. Now the party’s average poll ratings are below 10 per cent.
Mr Johnson’s success in securing a withdrawal agreement with the EU and his aggressive pursuit of Brexit has dented Mr Farage’s appeal, with many candidates in his new party wondering what purpose is served by fighting the Tories at the election.