Euan McColm: Electoral pacts can’t stop no-deal juggernaut

Coming so soon after the installation of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, it was a moment to savour for those who despair of his march towards a no-deal Brexit.

By-election victor and Welsh Lib Dem leader Jane Dodds hugs Jo Swinson. Picture: Matthew Horwood/Getty

The result of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election represented a kick in the Johnson shins and a boost for recently elected Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson, whose party overturned an 8,000-plus majority to take the seat from the Conservatives.

As is customary following a by-election result, the victors were quick to explain how this could be read as a portent of things to come.

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According to Swinson, the outcome showed that the Lib Dems were “winning and on the up”.

Conservative Chairman James Cleverly (an example of nominative irony, if ever there was one) on the other hand dismissed the election of Lib Dem candidate Jane Dodds as the result of a “dirty deal” which saw both the Greens and Plaid Cymru stand aside to give the anti-Brexit candidate the clearest possible run at victory.

Interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday morning, Swinson expressed her appreciation of the decision by the Greens and Plaid to put “the national interest first” and said that she could envisage further co-operation in the future. The goodwill for such agreements was there, she added.

It is easy to see the appeal of such agreements for those voters who believe that Brexit – especially the no-deal variety now envisaged by the Prime Minister – represents a catastrophic act of self-harm. If Swinson and the leaders of other avowedly anti-Brexit parties could reach agreements in key constituencies across the UK to stand only the candidate with the greatest chance of winning then, surely, the chances of the Johnson project being stopped in its tracks would be greatly enhanced.

There are just one or two small hurdles in the way…

The first of these is the fact that, although speculation runs feverishly, Johnson has not yet called a general election.

It’s certainly true that many Conservative Party MPs would like the new PM to capitalise on a boost in the polls to try to increase their numbers at Westminster, but others believe this might be a risky strategy. If Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (about which, more in a moment) splits the right-wing Eurosceptic vote, then a snap election could bring the Johnson premiership to a sudden end.

But let us imagine that Johnson goes down the general election route before the current Brexit deadline of 31 October and that Swinson sets about trying to build an anti-Brexit coalition. She might have been able to persuade Plaid and the Greens to step aside in a single by-election, but would these parties really be so keen to lay down their electoral chances across the country? Would they risk, by seeing their overall votes in a general election diminish severely, becoming less politically relevant?

And what about the SNP, every bit as opposed to Brexit as the Lib Dems? There are fewer seats in Scotland where anti-Brexit parties risk splitting the vote than there are in England, but one of them – East Dunbartonshire – is Swinson’s own.

Swinson served as MP for that constituency between 2005-15 and was then defeated by the SNP’s John Nicolson. She took the seat back in 2017, largely, I suspect because of Nicolson’s unpopularity. But with a more impressive candidate, the SNP would surely have a fighting chance of snatching it back.

The removal of the leader of the Liberal Democrats from the House of Commons would represent quite a scalp for the nationalists. Can you imagine Nicola Sturgeon passing up the opportunity to see off Swinson? I can’t. And nor would I blame the SNP leader for committing significant resources to bringing down Swinson.

Politics is a contact sport and Swinson is a major target. The suggestion from her that the SNP should give her a clear run at the seat would, rightly, be met with derision.

Jo Swinson is not the only party leader now talking about pacts. Brexit Party leader Farage has raised the prospect of deals with the Conservatives, particularly in the north of England, to ensure the election of Eurosceptic MPs.

Given the result of the 2016 referendum, any such agreements would surely guarantee the evisceration of any anti-Brexit candidates in those areas.

Yes, electoral pacts might be made to work for pro-EU parties but they could just as easily be the secret of Brexiteer success.

Those now clamouring for agreements to be struck between the Lib Dems and other parties which take the same position on EU membership should, I think, be careful that they are not wishing for the creation of two-horse races in key constituencies across the country. That scenario would risk strengthening rather than weakening the Brexiteers’ squad at Westminster.

Johnson is supported by a team in government that is fully committed to Brexit by 31 October at any cost. The PM will gladly sacrifice the best interests of the UK economy to protect himself.

This being so, and with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour still embarrassingly weak on the matter of Brexit, the idea that the Johnson project might be stopped is an appealing one to those of us who would dearly like to see Brexit cancelled at this late stage.

But I fear that any plan to run a single anti-Brexit candidate in a constituency would be met with a plan to run a single pro-Brexit candidate. Jiggery-pokery would be fought with jiggery-pokery.

It is abundantly clear that Brexiteers won the 2016 referendum with a campaign strewn with lies. Their promises of an effortless, painless departure from the EU have long since been exposed.

But rather than turning against campaign leaders, pro-Brexit voters appear to be hardening their positions and cheering on a damaging no-deal departure.

It may now be obvious that Brexit is going to be difficult to deliver. But stopping it will be harder still.