Nigel Farage’s retreat from the election battlefield has been ragged.
Earlier this month the Brexit party leader insisted he would field 600 parliamentary candidates at the December 12 general election unless Boris Johnson abandoned his Brexit deal and formed a “Leave alliance” with Mr Farage for the poll.
But on Monday Mr Farage told about 300 Brexit party candidates that their services would not be needed as he unilaterally declared he would not contest the 317 constituencies won by the Conservatives at the 2017 election.
“I’m going to have some upset people out there,” Mr Farage admitted after he made the announcement on Monday in Hartlepool. “People have put their own money into the campaigns.”
Later he hinted that the retreat may not yet be over.
Mr Farage said it was imperative to avoid a hung parliament that culminated in Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister, plus the prospect of a second EU referendum and the risk that Brexit could be lost.
A big decision looms for Mr Farage: will he pull his candidates from Labour held seats that Mr Johnson is targeting to secure a House of Commons majority and see through Brexit?
Mr Farage refused to rule out such a possibility — candidate nominations close on Thursday — and pollsters agree that if he really wants to avoid a hung parliament and ensure that Mr Johnson is able to deliver Brexit, the Brexit party should pull out of contesting key Labour seats.
Chris Curtis, political research manager of YouGov, said that based on current polling Mr Farage’s decision not to fight Tory-held seats could — at the margins — help Mr Johnson fend off Remain inspired challenges from the Liberal Democrats in southern England and the Scottish National party in Scotland.
He added the Brexit party move could also help the Conservatives stymie any late surge in support for Labour in Tory held seats in the run-up to polling day.
But Mr Curtis concluded that on current polling, Mr Farage’s Monday announcement would make very little difference to the outcome of the election. “If he pulled out of Labour seats there would be much more of an impact,” he said.
This is because Mr Johnson is seeking to stay in Downing Street by seizing Labour held seats that voted for Brexit in the 2016 EU referendum, and Mr Farage’s decision to contest these constituencies risks splitting the Leave vote and letting Mr Corbyn retain them.
Although Mr Farage claims the Brexit party will hurt Labour as much as the Conservatives in seats with relatively small majorities, most election experts argue he poses more of a threat to Mr Johnson than Mr Corbyn.
That is particularly the case in towns in the Midlands and northern England — including seats such as Hartlepool — where Leave voters have a choice between a once dominant Labour party, the Tories and Mr Farage’s candidates.
A YouGov poll of 11,000 voters last month was broken down by “place type” for the Centre for Towns think-tank, and found that the Conservatives were surging ahead of Labour in towns compared to during the 2017 election.
While Labour was ahead of the Tories in “core cities” — Mr Corbyn’s strongholds such as London and Manchester — the Conservatives outpolled Labour in small, medium and large towns. Mr Johnson’s position would be further strengthened if the Brexit party, polling between 12 and 14 per cent in these towns, pulled out.
For now Mr Farage and Richard Tice, Brexit party chairman, argue they can win in Labour seats like Hartlepool — where they claim Tories cannot succeed — and therefore it makes sense not to abandon the election completely.
Mr Tice said the Brexit party had got “zero” in return from the Conservatives in exchange for its non-aggression pact with the Tories, although speculation was rife about what — if anything — Mr Farage was offered.
Mr Farage claimed unnamed Tory figures had dangled membership of the House of Lords in front of him, but Mr Johnson tweeted that the Brexit party’s move was simply a welcome recognition “that another gridlocked hung parliament is the greatest threat to getting Brexit done”.
Mr Corbyn said Mr Farage was doing the bidding of his friend, US president Donald Trump. “One week ago Donald Trump told Nigel Farage to make a pact with Boris Johnson,” said Mr Corbyn, referring to a radio interview that Mr Farage did with Mr Trump. “Today, Trump got his wish.”
Meanwhile, Ed Davey, the Lib Dem deputy leader, suggested that while the withdrawal of the Brexit party in Tory seats could help to unite the Leave vote, it could also drive Remain-minded voters into his party’s camp.
“Nigel Farage standing down shows the Conservatives and the Brexit party are now one and the same,” said Sir Ed.
Ultimately, Mr Farage’s decision to withdraw his forces was almost inevitable. He had been under enormous pressure from the pro-Brexit media, his party donors, MEPs, parliamentary candidates and other supporters to stand aside and not let Mr Corbyn into Downing Street by accident.
His initial announcement to field a full slate of candidates was seen by his allies as “an opening offer” to the Tories, and those close to the Brexit party leader said they had always expected he would eventually do “the sensible thing for Brexit”.
The next 72 hours will determine whether Mr Farage is willing to retreat even further and pull his candidates out of some Labour seats.