His decision to stand down Brexit Party candidates freed Tories to fight harder in Labour heartlands, writes Brian Monteith
There is much to digest from the feast of information provided by the general election. Two strong narratives deserve attention, not least because I do not see them given adequate scrutiny elsewhere. The first is how the Conservatives managed to do so well in Labour heartlands in Wales and across England’s North and Midlands – and second, why the Tory vote dropped in Scotland when it rose in England and Wales.
It is difficult to understate the psychological impact of the Conservative gains in the north of England, not just on the Labour Party’s self-confidence but more importantly on the culture of political tribalism that has been turned on its head.
The decision of Nigel Farage, announced in Hartlepool, that the Brexit Party would not contest the 317 seats won by the Conservatives at the last election was a key turning point of the election. At a stroke it protected the Conservative flank from the Liberal Democrats, who might have benefited from a split between Leave supporters, especially in constituencies in the South and South West that had supported Remain or were only marginally Leave. Farage’s aim was to halt any possibility of a second referendum arising out of a hung parliament and in this he succeeded, putting Jo Swinson’s campaign into a tailspin she never recovered from.
Intentionally or inadvertently, Farage’s decision also ensured the Conservatives had a firmer foundation to go forward from. Rather than having to defend Tory marginals, higher national spending and the targeting of activists on the ground could be redirected to Labour marginals – especially in Leave-voting Labour seats in Wales, the North and Midlands. Boris Johnson himself was suddenly able to reschedule his campaign visits away from primarily Tory areas to include opposition territory such as Sunderland – giving weight to his claim he was seeking to build a one-nation government that had the interest of all the people at heart.
For some in the Conservative campaign Farage’s decision to put country before party was still not enough: they wanted the Brexit Party to withdraw from even more seats, avowing he was still splitting the Leave vote and risking a Corbyn government. This claim (often amounting to the bullying and emotional blackmail of Farage’s candidates through social media and a Daily Mail email campaign) fed off the genuine unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn amongst many Labour voters but also helped drive them towards voting Tory. The scare tactics were, however, misplaced and exaggerated – thanks to Farage’s generosity Johnson was already sailing towards a victory. The real question was by how much?
By focusing on Labour seats, I argued repeatedly in these pages that what would transpire is the “Thurrock Effect”, whereby the campaigning of the Brexit Party would so weaken Labour support that Conservatives could gain seats never before dreamed of, as had happened in Thurrock in 2015 and 2017 thanks to votes for Ukip. We can now see that theory became reality as seats such as Blyth Valley, Bolton North East, and the two Bury seats of North and South, all turned deep blue after decades of being blood red. Altogether I count 19 constituencies where the vote of the Brexit Party candidate was higher than the winning margin of the Tories who won.
I don’t accept that you can simply tot-up votes from one party and add them to another as an exact formula; voters’ decisions are far more complex than that, but there is no doubt from my experience in canvassing that many disenchanted Labour voters wanted a home other than the Conservative Party and the Brexit Party gave them that option. In some seats it would be the difference between the Labour or Tory candidate winning.
In other Labour fiefdoms such as Sedgefield, Redcar, Rother Valley and Wrexham, the combination of Labour Remainers voting Liberal Democrat and Labour Leavers voting Brexit Party likewise helped the Conservatives to victory.
A word of warning, however, to the many smug and arrogant Conservative cheerleaders on social media; those votes are only on loan and can be lost far more easily than the effort it took to gain them.
A more formidable leader of the Labour Party such as Lisa Nandy from the northern seat of Wigan could change the optics overnight. With Brexit now being accepted by arch-Remainers Guy Verhofstadt and Andrew Adonis, the focus must surely shift to British domestic politics – what if Johnson fails to keep his promises on Brexit and we remain locked-in. Who will voters trust then?
In Scotland we have the puzzle that is the performance of the Scottish Conservatives – who saw their vote share fall significantly against 2017, when the party’s support in England and Wales increased. What is noticeable is where a constituency had a higher share of Leave votes in the EU referendum the Conservatives did better, but where there was a strong Remain vote, such as Edinburgh South West, the Tory result was poorer.
Like any team shorn of its star player, team Ruth without Ruth Davidson disappointed –– yet it was Davidson’s earlier own-goal of failing to develop a pro-Leave strategy to tap into the 36 per cent of Scots Leave voters that really marginalised support. In addition, her private war with Boris Johnson took the party up a cul-de-sac from which it never really reappeared from.
The best that can be hoped for Scottish Conservatives is they find a new leader who, given a blank canvass, can champion the benefits for Scotland of getting Brexit done while giving sharper focus to the SNP’s domestic failures in health, education and justice. Who that might be remains unclear, but it must be resolved very quickly if anything positive is to be achieved by the 2021 Holyrood elections.
Polling suggests that as many as 10 per cent of those who voted SNP did so to stop Brexit rather than to achieve secession. Likewise, the SNP gained heavily from the collapse in Labour support which in England and Wales turned to the Conservatives. Why is that? In both cases such voters would know that a vote for the SNP could be recovered later by voting in favour of the Union at any subsequent referendum.
After all the issues around trust for Boris Johnson, there is a possibility the Conservative offer to block a second independence referendum might be losing its attraction – because voters are on this occasion taking the Prime Minister at his word. How ironic would that be?
l Brian Monteith MEP is Chief Whip of the Brexit Party in the European Parliament.