Is the Brexit Party the enemy or friend of the Tory Party? Is Nigel Farage its destroyer – or could he turn into its redeemer?
This is not as crazy a question as it may sound, even though right now Farage’s new venture is set to humiliate the Conservatives in the forthcoming EU parliamentary elections.
The answer is contingent on other events, and in particular who wins the power struggle within the Conservative Party after Theresa May stands down (which every Tory MP I ask believes will be before the June 15th extraordinary vote by Tory local association chairs and grassroots officials on whether she is fit to remain in office – strikingly Andrew Bridgen and Ed Vaizey, from the polar opposite wings of the party, endorsed that scenario on my show last night).
The important point is that even the so-called One Nation, pro-EU Tories typically give me just a single name as May’s likely successor, namely “Boris” – largely because he is the only one on their benches who they think can beat Farage in the game of demagogues.
To be clear, he is not a shoo-in. On the Brexiter wing of the Tory party, Boris Johnson has powerful enemies and the corollary is that his rival Dominic Raab has powerful supporters.
And it is presumed when MPs pick the two candidates to be leader (and PM) who will then face a run-off ballot of party members, only one will be a “proper” Brexiter (because there are sufficient numbers of Tory MPs who have a vestigial hope that they can rebuild their party as that traditional coalition of Thatcherite and One Nation Tories, if Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt or Matt Hancock becomes leader).
But as and when Tory members have to choose between Raab or Johnson on the one hand, and Saj Huntcock on the other, it would defy all the evidence of what’s happening in the EU parliamentary elections if the “true” Brexiter did not triumph.
Tory members and supporters are not turning to Farage now as their Brexit saviour only to decide in a few weeks time that any member of the Cabinet complicit in May’s Brexit is a good egg after all.
By the way, a very senior cabinet member told me Raab’s strongest card over Johnson is that Johnson dare not hold a general election – because he would be too vulnerable to a Remainer backlash against him in his Remainy Uxbridge constituency.
So right now I find it hard to determine whether the victor will be Raab or Johnson. But it is difficult to see how any other candidate can catch them.
But what would follow a Johnson or a Raab moving into 10 Downing Street? Well either would immediately ask the EU to replace the Northern Ireland backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement with their cherished “alternative” arrangements for keeping open the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
There is no reason to assume the EU would be persuadable that the Brexiters’ hybrid of technology and deregulation would be any more workable under a new UK PM than under the current one.
So Johnson and Raab would also massively step up preparations for a no-deal Brexit – which would become their preferred Brexit policy as and when the EU refuses to budge on the backstop.
That said, any new Tory leader would inherit from May the impossible parliamentary arithmetic that prevails now. Either of them might want a no-deal Brexit; but they know MPs would (again) block such.
So they would have to go to the country, probably in October – to secure a fresh mandate.
In those circumstances the Labour Party would presumably campaign on a pledge to hold a confirmatory referendum (members and trade unions would force this on the party at the autumn conference). The country would then face a genuine Brexit general election.
In those momentous circumstances, Johnson or Raab would be acutely aware that having Farage as an ally and partner rather than opponent could well be the difference between victory or ignominy.
One Tory Brexiter MP told me to expect a “Coupon” election, so styled after the 1918 Liberal/Tory pact. What he meant is that the Tory Party leader and Farage would each approve Conservative and Brexit party candidates who pass a threshold of holding genuine Brexit views and who would therefore not compete against each other.
Although such a formal electoral pact might sound fanciful right now, the catastrophe for Johnson or Raab would be for the election to yield yet another hung parliament – and such a hung parliament could well bypass a referendum altogether and move straight to revocation of the decision to leave the EU.
For each of them, mortgaging the Tory party to Farage would probably be preferable to no Brexit.
What I have outlined seems to me the most plausible scenario on the balance of probabilities – although the uncertainties around it are so huge that at best only some of it will come to pass.
I am trying to make a single important point. Which is that if the Tories, when choosing their new leader, assume that Farage’s new party is a chimera, a passing thing, they may be rejected by many of their supporters and members as a historical curiosity and irrelevance.
If the defining characteristic of the Tory party throughout its history has been its survival, occasionally against extreme odds, it may need to fuse with Farage – or at least reach a formal accommodation with him – rather than repel him.
Robert Peston is ITV’s Political Editor. This post originally appeared on his ITV news blog