The latest polling from the constituency of Portsmouth South made worrying reading for Brexiteers. It showed that despite a fall in support for Labour as well as the Conservatives, a decent showing for the Brexit Party in fourth place on 14% left the Liberal Democrats in the lead and poised to gain the seat.
The Tory candidate, Donna Jones, reacted to these numbers by publicly calling for Farage’s party to not stand a candidate against her, something he has rejected on the grounds that he believes the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson is ‘not Brexit’.
It is certainly not an ideal agreement for our departure but, like many in Westminster – including those in Downing Street – I believe that the crevice does not have to be jumped in one leap.
“If the Brexit Party don’t stand a candidate, then the chances of me winning go up dramatically,” Jones told the Telegraph. “It’s a three-way marginal, so not having another right-of-centre party standing will help me.”
Ms Jones assumes, as many do, that those voting for the Brexit Party will be Tory swing votes whereas Farage believes, as was the case in 2015, that his party will actually harm Labour most.
In the North and the Midlands, that may well be true, but in the South it is a narrative which is not being well received. It has resulted in some Brexit Party candidates resigning and publicly calling for a change of strategy saying, as Conservative MP and European Research Group Chairman Steve Baker did earlier this week, that the man many hold as the reason for the referendum and for Brexit may actually cause it to be stopped.
Even Farage’s former good friend Arron Banks has said standing candidates across the country is wrong, revealing that he is on ‘the naughty step’ these days. It may be, as has happened before, that a disagreement has resulted in Banks being shut out from the ever-decreasing circle that now advises Mr Brexit. Those who were part of it certainly form a larger number than those who are now included in it, with names from down the years being cast aside in favour of shiny new, perhaps more compliant, faces. But it is not helping Farage and it is not helping the cause.
Take the constituency of Chippenham, for example. It voted Remain by a decent amount in the referendum, being home to a large number of comfortable, middle-class people who are the backbone of the Remainer cause. If you picture one of their rallies in London, complete with Mary Berry-enhanced picnics and a decent bottle of Sancerre, you can rest assured that Waitrose in Bath will be empty that day.
The seat is, however, held by a Conservative. Admittedly Michelle Donelan supported Remain during the referendum, but that was probably due to the then Prime Minister being of that persuasion and her being new in her post and ambitious. Now she supports Boris’s deal and, importantly, believes that democracy must be honoured.
It is a Lib Dem target seat. The leafletting has been relentless, with two or three different campaigns being delivered a week; and despite the unfortunate surname of their candidate, respectable family homes are proudly displaying signs saying ‘Belcher’ as if they are trying to throw off the stigma of a digestive disorder.
Just as a Labour candidate – and a Green candidate – would harm the Lib Dem’s chances of snatching the seat back, there is no doubt a Brexit Party candidate would be going for Donelan’s vote. Yesterday, it was announced that the Greens are giving the Lib Dems a free run here – and I believe it will damage the Brexit Party’s reputation if they don’t do the same for Tory Brexiteers in target seats.
What is the point of the Brexit Party, whose stated aim is purely the implementation of Brexit, in assisting the arch-Remain party in gaining seats in Westminster?
Whatever might be true in the Northern Labour seats where I spent much time campaigning during the referendum, the harsh, unyielding narrative of Farage in this campaign has been harming, not helping, his cause.
And in general elections, it is the national message which counts. It is that message which is on the car radios on the way to work, in the newspapers and sets the tone of the regional newspapers too. It forms the narrative of the debate and it means that however much Brexit Party candidates call out that they are taking votes off Labour, there will be a swirling of unease and even anger amongst Brexiteers that the man of whom they had such a positive opinion previously appears to be putting his own party and own career above achieving Brexit.
That is why the threats to Johnson, who is popular amongst Brexiteers, will not help Farage and not help the Brexit cause.
It was the core principle in UKIP, prior to 2016, that it was country before party. The Brexit Party’s current approach does not fit that mould anymore.
This year’s European Parliament election and the amazing result achieved by the Brexit Party was a key milestone along the journey of Johnson becoming Prime Minister. But the majority of Brexiteers believe that Boris is the man to deliver Brexit – and for that, they need a Conservative majority in Westminster.
If Brexit ended with the rather duff deal that is currently on the table, I would be disappointed. Many people would be. We need an independent foreign policy, defence policy and to embrace free trade.
But to do that, we need different numbers in Parliament in order to ensure there are no more Benn Acts and that power is put back in the hands of the 17.4 million people who voted to Leave and the other millions who believe democracy should be respected.
The European Union – and the intransigent MEPs in the European Parliament – do not want December to bring about a change in the parliamentary arithmetic. They are delighted with the work the likes of Yvette Cooper and Oliver Letwin have been doing for them.
They would be even more delighted with a Parliament filled with Liberal Democrats. Guy Verhofstadt would have the party of parties and crow that Brexit is being cancelled.