Boris Johnson will be rightly relieved by Nigel Farage’s announcement that he is not standing Brexit Party candidates in 317 seats where the Tories had MPs elected in 2017.
It is not unalloyed good news for the Tories: the Brexit Party will still stand in all Tory target seats which they want to win, making the path to a solid majority harder.
The Tories may still have to win up to 50 Labour-held Brexit seats for a clear majority, and it is not clear how many seats the Tories might have lost with or without this pact.
However, it would be unwise for Labour to underestimate the importance of today’s “unilateral Leave alliance”, as Mr Farage brands it, in an election which is so volatile and uncertain and could come down to small margins.
Just look at the national polling.
In the last YouGov poll, 19% – or almost one in five 2016 Leave voters – were saying they would vote for the Brexit Party.
Twice as many Brexit Party voters supported the Tories in 2017 compared to either Labour or the Lib Dems.
Tory candidates themselves say the presence of a Brexit Party candidate was going to massively complicate their job defending marginal seats.
Take Southampton Itchen – the most marginal Tory seat in the country.
In 2017 this south coast seat had a Tory majority of 31 votes in a seat where 60% supported leave in 2016.
Logic suggests those Brexit Party supporting Leave voters would now mostly – though not all – break for the Tories.
This logic also applies in other Tory marginals facing the Lib Dems like St Ives, where the Tories won with a 312 majority over the Lib Dems in a 55% Leave seat.
Tory strategists have long suggested the biggest worry in this election would be Leave voters dividing between the Tories and Brexit Party, hurting incumbents, and making net gains harder. This will not now happen.
One Tory analyst suggested the consequence of today’s announcement is the Tories having much more chance of holding onto Pudsey, Blackpool North and Cleveleys, Bolton West, Copeland and Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, the Tory Labour ultra-marginals that have a history of supporting UKIP in the 2015 general election and backed the Brexit Party in the European elections.
Farage not fielding candidates in Tory-held seats hardly helps at all. The Tories need to win these 50 pro-Brexit Labour marginals to win a majority. The Brexit Party standing in them could see Corbyn enter Downing Street and Brexit cancelled. pic.twitter.com/YgeKjgPIcy
— Joe Armitage (@joe_armitage) November 11, 2019
There is a second, potentially even bigger effect from today’s announcement – the “megaphone” effect of Mr Farage is now endorsing Mr Johnson’s Brexit plan.
And the fact he will have less of a platform in this election, since his party is not fielding as many seats, meaning he could get less broadcast coverage.
The Farage endorsement could help detoxify Mr Johnson’s Brexit plan.
Until now, according to last week’s YouGov figures, only 29% of voters approved of the prime minister’s renegotiated deal.
The Brexit Party leader’s argument in support was nuanced, carefully constructed and designed to look consistent with his previous positions, particularly by stressing the PM has given Mr Farage what he wants.
This cannot but help Mr Johnson in the “airwar” – the discussion on TV, radio and newspapers.
It means Mr Johnson will no longer face accusations from his right in debates and TV shows.
Meanwhile, Mr Farage will use his many media platforms to entirely focus his criticism on the “remain alliance.”
Huge obstacles still remain for Mr Johnson to win a big majority in this election, with the path to an overall majority still tough though doable.
This could have the biggest effect on seats which voted heavily to leave in 2016 but are held by slim Labour majorities.
This includes seats like Hartlepool where Richard Tice, the Brexit Party chairman is standing, Dudley North and Ashfield.
However that does not mean today’s announcement does not have real significance.
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