Boris Johnson’s aides in Downing Street have “opened channels” with the Brexit Party to discuss a formal general election pact, according to close associates of Nigel Farage.
The two party leaders have not talked since Johnson became prime minister. However, back-channel meetings between Number 10 and Brexit Party officials have taken place. Further talks, according to sources contacted by openDemocracy, are scheduled over the coming weekend.
They will include arranging a public meeting between Johnson and Farage that could take place shortly after parliament prorogues next week.
Tory MP Ed Vaizey said that a pact with Brexit Party “would be the death of the centre-ground Conservative Party.”
Downing Street would not comment on the prime minister’s private schedule and would not acknowledge any contact with Farage or his party’s staff.
As well as agreeing a strategy for Brexit and Tory party candidates not to challenge each other in critical marginal seats, a pact could also free up needed donor cash to fund the expected £20 million the Conservatives believe is needed to deliver a successful election campaign. The party spent £18.5m in 2017 and failed to secure a majority.
Death of centre-ground Tory Party
The prospect of a deal between the Conservative Party and Farage will horrify Tory centrists who believe Johnson, according to one MP, “is prepared to sell the soul of the Conservative Party to stay in power.”
Even if Johnson agreed to a Tory withdrawal in seats where there was little prospect of a Conservative victory, there are many Tories who believe any public deal with Farage will damage an already fragile Tory brand under Johnson’s leadership.
Ed Vaizey, a minister in David Cameron’s government, and one of the 21 MPs thrown out of the Conservative Party this week after voting against the Johnson government to stop a no-deal Brexit, told openDemocracy: “I would find it pretty unpalatable to be a Conservative candidate in an election where my party had a formal relationship with the Brexit Party, given the Brexit Party’s values.
“They have been wholly damaging to the Conservative Party cause and their leading figures want to see the destruction of the Conservative Party. “
Johnson’s chief of staff, Dominic Cummings, is a known critic of Farage. Cummings, who ran the official Vote Leave campaign, tried unsuccessfully to airbrush Farage’s own Leave.EU campaign contribution out of the Brexit victory.
Any accommodation with the Brexit Party by Johnson will be seen either as a massive compromise for Cummings, or a sign that his power is being curtailed.
Election donations on hold
One Brexit Party source said: “We know support from some of the biggest donors is being put on hold. Some big backers who have funded the Brexit and Conservative parties, want a deal to secure Brexit. This is money the Tories need to fight a winning election campaign. And it’s on hold till a formal pact is agreed.”
The Johnson-Farage pact could also go further. A senior figure in the Brexit Party said that Arron Banks, who funded the unofficial Leave.EU campaign, was prepared to donate substantial funds to the Conservatives if a pact with Farage was put in place.
Banks is under investigation by the National Crime Agency over the sources of his wealth with the NCA also investigating his donation to the Leave.EU campaign.
The efforts to facilitate a deal between Johnson and Farage is effectively confirmation that the prime minister has now accepted he is unlikely to force a mid-October election ahead of the summit of European leaders on 17 October.
With growing concern in Downing Street about co-ordinated anti-Johnson tactical voting, and the prospect that opposition parties could come close to standing down candidates in key marginals, a pact with the Brexit Party, however unpalatable, is now seen as a necessary survival strategy.
Farage recently claimed that without a deal with his party, Johnson “cannot win an election”. However he said if there was a deal between the two parties, with clarity over where they stood on Brexit, “we’d be unstoppable”.
A new ICM poll published in the Financial Times, commissioned by the pro-remain Represent Us, only partially backs Farage’s optimism. It forecasts support for Farage’s party would double from its current level of nine percent if a general election took place after Halloween.
The same ICM poll forecasts that a mid-October poll would see the Tories win 37 per cent with Labour seven points behind.
However the post-Halloween forecast has both Labour and the Conservatives on 30 per cent, and Farage’s party on 18 percent. If the poll proves to be accurate, Johnson would need to rely on a formal pact with the Brexit Party to ensure the pro-Brexit vote was not split in key seats
The anticipated talks between the two party leaders, according to sources, will initially centre on seats where a Brexit Party challenge to a sitting Tory MP would do most damage. In these seats, where Labour and the Liberal Democrats might come close to winning, the absence of a Brexit Party candidate would assist Johnson’s efforts to remain in Number 10.
Farage is understood to have made clear to colleagues that in any pact he expects a similar sacrifice from the Tories to stand aside in a majority of strong Labour seats in the north of England where the pro-Brexit vote was highest.
Equally, a deal with the Tories could dent the Brexit Party’s claim to be the alternative to the Westminster’s mainstream. That idea is dismissed by Farage’s aides who believe their strong showing in the recent European election can be sustained at a general election.
The prime minister continues to claim that the UK will leave the European Union on 31 October. However, the Commons has backed a new law which forces the prime minister to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline from Brussels if there is no deal with Brussels by 19 October.
Johnson has said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask the EU to delay Britain’s exit.
Update, 24 September 2019: The National Crime Agency has found no evidence that Arron Banks, Elizabeth Bilney, Better for the Country Ltd or Leave.EU committed a crime under electoral or company law. Its investigation related to a referral from the Electoral Commission on 1 November 2018. For more information see the NCA statement here.