LBC’s Theo Usherwood explains why Boris Johnson is exactly where Theresa May was in June 2017

12 November 2019, 13:26

File photo: Boris Johnson (left) and Nigel Farage
File photo: Boris Johnson (left) and Nigel Farage. Picture: PA
Theo Usherwood

By Theo Usherwood

Nigel Farage has made the first move in conceding that his Brexit Party will not stand candidates in the 317 seats currently held by the Conservatives.

In places like the Cornish constituency of St Ives, that decision will make a big difference. The Tory Derek Thomas held off the Liberal Democrat challenger Andrew George by just 312 votes.

If Farage had stood a candidate in the seat, the leave vote would have been split, giving George a much better chance. Now, it is a straight fight between the Lib Dems and Tories.

North Cornwall is a neighbouring constituency where again the Brexit Party decision is good for the Tories. Ditto Zac Goldsmith’s Richmond Park seat in south-west London.

But, Farage’s announcement only lands Boris Johnson exactly where Theresa May landed back in June 2017. He is still short of an overall Commons majority.

And the Brexit Party still plans to field candidates in Labour-held seats in the north of England, Midlands and south Wales.

Farage of course insists that he is just as popular, if not more popular, with Labour leave voters who would never vote Tory.

But when you look at Tory targets like Bishop Auckland in the north east, and Workington in Cumbria, the Tories benefitted to a greater extent than Labour from the collapse of the Ukip vote in 2017.

In other words, if Nigel Farage – as the leader of a very similar party, just with a different name – manages to cut through in the next few weeks, he threatens the Tory vote, more than he threatens the Labour vote.

The obvious caveat to this is that the Brexit Party looks as though it will change its message.

Out with the critique that Boris Johnson’s agreement with the European Union doesn’t constitute Brexit, and in with a slogan that accuses Jeremy Corbyn of betraying the 17.4 million people who voted to leave the EU by promising a second referendum.

But there is also a longer game to be played by Farage and hardline Eurosceptics in the Conservative Party.

The “Get Brexit Done” slogan has an appeal to remainers. It’s about shutting the Pandora’s Box that was opened by David Cameron when he promised a second referendum in the wake of the pasty tax budget way back in 2012.

But there is still some way to go. The UK has to negotiate a free trade deal with the European Union.

If it wishes to diverge from Brussels rules and regulations in separate trade agreements signed with countries outside of the European Union, that will inevitably mean lengthy checks and controls the border crossings between mainland Great Britain and the European Union.

There will be pressure from businesses to make sure those checks and controls are kept to a minimum. But for that to happen, it will mean the UK has to accept EU conditions in that trade agreement.

That’s exactly what Farage and the ERG is hoping to avoid.

But the truth that for the last nine years, Eurosceptics have wielded enormous amounts of power in the Conservative Party because David Cameron and Theresa May have either had to work with other parties or enjoyed – for a very brief period between 2015 and 2017 – a slim Commons majority.

If Boris Johnson wins big on the morning of December 13th with a majority north of 50 or 60, the ERG suddenly becomes much less relevant.

Farage’s claws, which have been attached to the Tory party for the last eight years, are suddenly loosened, and Boris Johnson has political space when it comes to negotiating a trade deal with the EU that allows for relatively frictionless trade.

In short: whilst it is in Nigel Farage’s interests for a Boris Johnson government, it is certainly not in his interests for the Tories to do so well that he can be shut out of the public debate completely, with no recourse to work with Tories sympathetic to his cause as they no longer matter to Boris Johnson in his quest to run a functioning Government which does novel things like pass pieces of legislation in Parliament.

Theo Usherwood is Political Editor for LBC and LBC News.