Until this morning, Nigel Farage’s creation of the Brexit Party stood as an object lesson in how to found a new political party in a two party system. Many have tried this of course, from David Owen to Chuka Umunna, and all have floundered – some quicker than others. The Brexit party, by contrast, went from nothing to winning the European elections in under five months. It did so because it had a very clear purpose and because its foundation was perfectly timed in order to exploit that issue.
But as of 11 o’clock this morning, that is gone. The Brexit Party is doomed to follow the same sad trajectory of other failed parties – to become the Natural Law Party for Brexiteers. Until this morning, it was widely reported that Farage was thinking of standing candidates in no more than 100 seats, perhaps fewer than 20. That would have been about right. It would have allowed the Brexit Party the outside chance of bagging one or two seats. A strong showing in the seats where it did stand would have reminded everyone that it remained a potent force, ready to rear its head again should MPs fail to enact Brexit. It could have concentrated its resources on battles it had some chance of winning and, by standing away from the rest, it would surely have invited the Conservatives to go easy on campaigning in constituencies where it was standing.
Yet instead Nigel Farage has thrown Boris Johnson a gauntlet he knows full well the Prime Minister will not sully his hands with. He has called for Boris to scrap his Brexit deal and forge an electoral pact, otherwise the Brexit Party will stand in every seat. It is not a serious suggestion – it is tantamount to Farage saying he will stand in every seat full stop.
The Brexit Party has little chance of winning any of these seats. Its share of the vote is plunging towards single figures where it will surely stay for the duration of the campaign. The Conservatives will rev up their campaigning machine in the few seats where the Brexit Party might have had a chance. Most Leave voters – apart from the few who favour the purity of a no-deal Brexit – will see their choice quite clearly as lying between electing a majority Conservative government, which will almost certainly get Brexit done by 31 January, or ending up with yet another hung Parliament. In the latter case it will be extremely difficult for the Conservatives to put together a coalition or confidence and supply arrangement with any other party. We would face yet more drift, an unstable Labour-led coalition and the certainty of a second referendum.
What Farage and his party have against Boris’s deal is hard to ascertain. While it creates a messy situation between Stranraer and Larne it achieves what surely were the two main objectives of leaving the EU: the ability to make our own regulations and to run our own trade policy. The Brexit Party should be grabbing at that, because it won’t get better. The last Parliament blocked no deal and it is pretty inevitable that the new one would, too.
It is perfectly possible for the Conservatives to win a majority even with the Brexit Party splitting the Leave vote. But if we do end up with the mess of a hung Parliament, and with it the failure to leave the EU, Nigel Farage will go down in history as the man who, against all odds, precipitated and won a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – and who ultimately went on to frustrate our departure.