How Brexit's Leave and Remain alliances are shaping the election
The FT's political commentator Robert Shrimsley and deputy comment editor Miranda Green sketch out the plots, pacts and possibilities as the parties campaign
Filmed by Rod Fitzgerald, edited by Petros Gioumpasis
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OK, Election 2019. Plots, Pacts and Possibilities.
Robert, we've got this great electoral fight coming on December the 12th. But already there are suspicions of what I suppose you might call a bit of 'match fixing' up front because one of the features of the first few days has been the attempt to form pacts on both sides of the Brexit divide, so a Leavers' pact and a Remainers' pact. But they're both fraught with difficulty.
Yes. As they attempt to form pacts, the failure to form pacts, and the possibility that the voters will have got the signal and worked out what to do anyway.
Right. So shall we start with the Leave side?
Which Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit party, has called his 'unofficial Leave alliance'
Unilateral Leave alliance, excuse me, and is only partial, right?
Someone says this was rather like Emma Watson's announcement that she was self-partnering.
As opposed to single. Nigel Farage, apparently without any quid pro quo from the Conservative party, announced that he was pulling the Brexit party out of the 317 seats that the Conservatives already control, which is a pretty big concession. One of the pollsters, Matthew Goodwin, said he reckoned there were about 35 seats where that could make a real difference to the Conservatives, 35 marginal seats.
So that could be 35 seats that the Tories would retain.
As their territory.
Rather than 35 gains crucially.
Yeah, places where the Leave vote might not be as split. There's been quite a lot of briefing from the Brexit party side about all the conversations they may or may not have had with Downing Street in order to get this deal. Certainly by Farage's demeanour one has to conclude that he's not completely happy whatever conversations took place.
He has, however, said that he's going to stand in the 300-odd other seats of Great Britain primarily held by the Labour party, some by the Lib Dems and the SNP. Plaid Cymru, as well, of course. And he's going to contest all of those seats. So actually, it's a fairly partial concession. It's a big deal in the Tory seats.
But the fact is in the seats the Conservative party needs to win...
...to take this election, they're going to face a Brexit party challenge at least in theory and at least on paper.
OK. So what I've attempted to do here, very badly, is not draw a snowman, but to try and do a, I mean, in a very loose description, a Venn diagram of the Leave, what did he call it? Unilateral...
Unilateral Leave alliance.
Unilateral Leave alliance. So let's just call it 'Leave.'
OK. Should we also have a Labour-held seats-bit of this?
Yeah, we should.
We should, OK. Oh, does that work? Maybe.
It's going to have to, isn't it?
OK. So, let's plot. Let's plot what happens here, then. So, these seats where the Brexit party and the Conservatives were going to be head to head...
...do they just happily go into in Tory column?
No, the one assumption that we all make when we talk about pacts is to very arrogantly assume that everybody's vote can just be handed over. That Nigel Farage has just gifted all the Brexit party votes in the Conservative seats to them. And of course, it's not like that because if those people wanted to vote Conservative, they'd have voted Conservative.
And some of these numbers are quite small. And when you get down to around 1,000-2,000 people, you begin to think they hold their views quite strongly. And so the fact they haven't... they didn't jump for Theresa May last time, suggests that maybe they won't jump this time. Well of course some of the Brexit party vote, as he's always maintained, are people who are actually Labour supporters who've gone to the Brexit party but can't bring themselves to go to the Conservatives.
So they might be here?
That's right. Again, estimates suggest that Labour loses one vote to the Brexit party for every two that the Conservatives lose. That will change, of course, now that the Conservative seats are not in play. So he will take votes from Labour as well, which can help the Conservatives in lots of places, where it pulls down the Labour vote without hurting the Conservatives.
So, there's some seats in this sort of area? I mean, how many votes and how many seats, though, can a Farage party really take...
...from Labour do we think? Well, can they win any? I mean, we've talked about Hartlepool.
That would be a possibility. But one or two seats, or even if that, because it's about concentrating the vote...
...in one seat because the first past the post is such a tricky...
...instinct tells me they won't take any.
I wouldn't be shocked if they took one or two. It will slightly depend, and this is where we're still trying to work out what's going on under the hood, whether the Conservatives have actually quietly decided not to bother in a few places and give them a bit of a clear run. I think one of the really interesting seats is Peterborough, where the Brexit party is very, very strong, and which used to be held by the Conservatives once upon a time. The split between the Brexit party and the Conservative party could easily keep Labour in charge of that seat.
So I think, most of the time, this challenge won't matter too much unless it's in a place where voters are genuinely confused, what is the better Leave option? Some of those will be very, very fiercely fought. But, I think actually Nigel Farage has sent a subliminal signal to voters by his pulling out of the Tory seats, which is actually saying, look, only the Tories can win this election. So I think even in the Labour seats he's still contesting, in most places, voters will have got the message that if Brexit's your number one concern, you probably ought to vote for the Conservative party.
Well, actually, I would say it's been notable how uncomfortable Nigel Farage has been over the last few days. He's got pressure on both sides, people inside the Brexit party who want them to stand firm. There are some rebel candidates even in these Conservative-facing seats who are standing anyway. There's a guy in Clacton-on-Sea who's changed his name so that he can register as a independent Brexit party candidate in rebellion against Farage's unilateral deal. So there is going to be all sorts of people who feel, as you rightly said, that a party can't gift its voters...
...to another party. And I think that becomes really significant when you look at the other side of the coin, the Remain alliance.
Just one other point.
The other point, you have to remember, is that Nigel Farage, love him or hate him, is a significant political figure, a significant political strategist who is capable of seeing the bigger picture. A lot of his followers are not. And so they've bought into the rhetoric of smashing the political system, and getting these corrupt parties out, and we're going to change everything. And so suddenly to be marched down the hill again is very, very difficult for them and some of their followers.
And once you've created a political organisation, you've won the European elections with a record number of MEPs. You now have a political organisation. What are you going to do with all those people and they're... they're all fired up now, and you've told them there's a fight to be fought?
I mean, do feel free to use the pens, of course, Robert if you want to draw a little Nigel Farage, because I understand you're a bit backward in coming forward on the drawing.
There is a reason for that. There is. Although after working to 9 the other day, maybe I'm prepared to have a go. What I need, I need a little pair of red trousers for Nigel Farage.
OK, that's nice.
...maybe a nice, blue jacket.
And are you putting him in the Conservative area? Because the other day he was forced to deny that he would himself be voting for the Conservative party.
No, I put him in this area because I didn't think about it, especially at the time I started drawing.
OK. Let's try and do the other side, then. Let's try and do. No, it's fine. Let's try and do the so-called 'Remain alliance.' Now, one of the problems I'm going to have drawing the Remain alliance is that the Labour party. Well, there's a limited Remain alliance. Let's stick with what we know.
Let's stick with what we know. We've got the Green party, we've got Plaid Cymru, that's the Welsh nationalists.
And we've got the Lib Dems.
We've also got like tiny little parties like Renew who are very a pro...
...Remain party who also are now jumping on board. But there's a huge problem with the Remain alliance, which is where's the Labour party?
Oh, it's just SNP, as well...
...are not in it.
Yes, they're not in it. That's true. What should we do for the SNP? Should we just put Labour and the SNP just completely separately, and then we can discuss? Go for it.
So, the key point with the Remain alliance parties...
...is that they are almost all in a roughly similar place. They all absolutely hate Brexit. They're absolutely competing for core Remainer votes.
They're pure Remain.
Pure Remain, exactly.
I mean, which to be fair, the SNP is as well. But the SNP doesn't see any great need to go into alliance because the NP thinks it is going to do very well in Scotland anyway.
And it has another priority.
Exactly. And also that other priority of Scottish independence certainly jars with the Liberal Democrats. So that makes it more difficult for them.
The Labour party is much more complicated. First of all, obviously, it's trying to tread a line and not be completely Remain. It wants to keep its Leave voters, those people up there who are being targeted. By saying we are still going to negotiate a Brexit deal, and we're going to put it to the public, so that's its... that's its nuanced position. So it's not a Remain party, which obviously precludes from being in the Remain alliance.
Secondly, the party with whom it would most benefit from any kind of agreement, which is the Liberal Democrats, doesn't like it.
First of all, it's taken a load of ex-Labour people who left the Labour party because they hate Jeremy Corbyn so much.
Jo Swinson, the the Liberal Democrat leader, is no great fan of his either. And so the problem is they are finding it very hard to reach any kind of agreement, much to the fury of Remainers, who are desperately trying to make one happen, and who are trying to urge much more tactical voting and on-the-ground arrangements. But it's a massive problem for the Labour Party, this.
So on the ground, there has been a lot of ill feeling and some really serious local rows. The Lib Dem candidate in Canterbury, which is a very, very slim Labour hold at the moment, they took it in 2017, unilaterally, again, decided to stand down. Lib Dem HQ insisted they would put another candidate in place. Cue horror from Labour Remainers.
But, of course, Labour's not saying that they would stand down in favour of any of these other...
Parties. Actually interestingly, in Scotland, there are a couple of Greens who've said they'll stand down for the SNP...
...because the Greens are also in favour of Scottish independence. So they don't mind about the SNP's other priorities. We should also...OK, we can move on to Northern Ireland.
Canterbury's an interesting case because it's very, very tight Labour/Conservative, just held by Rosie Duffield - 180 votes or something in it.
Lib Dems absolutely nowhere. But if they're doing well, it could make the difference. So...
I'm going to... I'm going to write 'Grr' in here because they're very angry.
I mean, I do think that when the Lib Dem vote gets quite low, you're probably, as you said, only talking about people who want to vote Lib Dem. So they may not go to the Labour party in the first place. It's also possible, of course, the Lib Dems would've taken votes from the Conservatives. So...
...standing down may not actually help the Labour party, although logic suggests it does.
So here's the thing. Standing aside for other parties, which has happened in this...
...I mean, we're saying quite in a limited way, it's still 50-60 seats. It may only affect the result in single figures. But that's not nothing in a potential hung parliament scenario. But actually standing down is not the only way to try and influence your voters to move across to another column, right? It's partly, as you were saying, it's this signal. If you send this signal, and even in the seats where you're not standing down, you're saying, you can treat our votes in this particular election, even if long term, as slightly interchangeable.
That's something that the Labour party doesn't really want to do and the Lib Dems don't really want to do because they're playing a longer game.
That's right, but also because even though Brexit is dominating this election, it's not the only issue. And for the Liberal Democrats, for Jo Swinson, whose primary targets are Conservative-held seats, promising not to put Labour in power is really, really important. I mean, leaving aside what she actually thinks about it, Conservative voters are frightened of Jeremy... Conservative members are frightened of Jeremy Corbyn. He's keeping people from the Labour party. So...
Well, also Labour defectors from the Labour party and voters of the same mind as, for example, Luciana Berger and Chuka Umunna, also don't want to have anything to do with Corbyn. So it's not just Tory voters.
And I think, I mean, Jo Swinson's in a fix on this because in a sense, if you're saying, as she does, is she's clearly not going to put Boris Johnson in power, and she's not going to put Jeremy Corbyn in power. In an interview with us today, she said, 'she'd rather force another election.' I mean she's still giving a tiny bit of wiggle room.
Hooray, another election! Yeah.
So, at some point, a reasonable voter might say, well, why exactly am I voting for you if I didn't think you're going to win? But she has made the decision, probably correctly, that says I cannot be seen to be someone who will put Jeremy Corbyn in power because I will lose the Conservative Remainer votes that I'm primarily targeting. So that's the other point about these Remain alliances is there's other factors in play, as you said.
Yeah. So the other thing that's been going on very much beneath the radar but potentially quite important in that hung parliament scenario because it affects what alliances either the Tory party or the Labour party can make in order to govern after December the 13th, there's also Northern Ireland.
Just before we do this.
Yeah. I really want to talk about Northern Ireland.
...while I'm standing there. There's only one thing, which is that the other thing to note about the two big players in the virtual alliance is that they are beginning to see their vote ticking up. And the gap between Labour and Conservatives and the Brexit party and the Lib Dems is widening because just the talk about this helps the two big parties because voters, the one thing voters absolutely do understand is that it's always been a two-party system, and that there is only... there are only two people who could likely be prime minister. And so all this talk about tactical alliances is helping the big parties squeeze the smaller ones.
So actually, there's also a really interesting...
No, no, you want to talk about Northern Ireland now.
Yeah, but you've distracted me with something that's actually interesting, which is the point of principle.
There are actually some people who don't like parties to stand down for each other because they feel that this is supposed to be a democratic competition. It's a competition of ideas, of leadership styles, as you've said, who's going to be the next prime minister? Actually standing down is a fix and stitches up the voters.
What do you think about that? Because I actually think that that's right. I actually would prefer situations in which everybody was offered a slate of candidates. But you can signal to voters how they can use their vote as a token if they feel more strongly about Brexit than something else, for example.
I have a lot sympathy for that view. And I think whatever the failings of the British electoral system, voters do understand it. And they know what they're doing if they choose not to vote for one of the two big parties. They understand that in most places that vote will not ultimately count.
But it's what they believe. It's what they feel. And they think, well, actually this is who I am. And I'm voting for this party, so.
OK. What I wanted to say about Northern Ireland was just this, which is that, obviously, the Conservative party has - I've just done DUP in green. I can't do that. I better do it in orange.
The Conservative party has only been able to govern since...
A unified Ireland.
That's right. The Conservative party has only been able to govern for the last two years with the help of the DUP....
...and their 10 MPs. But there is also a slightly odd Remain alliance in Northern Ireland.
...which could deprive the DUP of two or three seats.
So that again - and I should just explain what it is - it's the SDLP, Sinn Féin, who don't actually formally take their seats in the, no but. plus alliance, which is a non-sectarian party. And they are helping each other potentially deprive the unionists of three seats.
Yeah. Although, actually, it's slightly - because I think it's some - the alliance is not standing aside for them in the way that they are for the alliance.
It's a tiny party, though.
No, but in one of the three seats they're targeting, which I think is South Belfast, the SDLP and the alliance are fairly close together. And so if voters don't understand which way they're going, that could lead the DUP, in other words, I think...
So it could be another split vote...
It could be, yes.
You can pick the right one. I mean, it's very interesting. But I mean, then again, I mean, you wonder how this will play out because say, for example, in North Belfast, which is Nigel Dodds's seat, he's the leader of the DUP...
...in the UK parliament. He's going to be run quite hard by Sinn Féin if their candidate, John Finucane, who is the son of the murdered lawyer, Pat Finucane. And that that's really, really close. But the other issue that people have to think about when they do this is, well, if it's Sinn Féin, you're not actually voting for an MP who's going to be in the British parliament. And I think that's difficult.
I think Sinn Féin refuses - at the moment, its seven MPs who don't turn up. If they did it would more or less cancel out the help the DUP gave to the Conservatives. So electing Sinn Féin in a DUP seat - is silencing yourself in the Westminster parliament. And that's a tricky one I think for a seat which isn't inherently nationalist.
Interesting though, just from the politics point of view, that the reason they're giving for co-operating with each other is the Brexit issue, that they are Remainers, and they feel that the excessive influence of the DUP over the Conservatives in the last two years has pushed us to where we are. So it's an attempt through a pact to counteract that...
...waiting on the Brexit argument.
I mean, looking at the numbers. I think there's only one... my guess is there's only one place that will make a difference unless the alliance and SDLP can sort out their problems.
All right. I'll tone it down a bit, then.
Nonetheless, it could take away the leader of the DUP. It could send a very nasty signal. And I think... isn't there a fourth seat held by the Ulster Unionists they've also been stepping aside for? So, again, it has the potential to make a small difference in Westminster. But I think it has the potential to make a major difference in Northern Ireland where this kind of co-operation could be really significant, also bring the SDLP back into parliament where they aren't at the moment, I believe.
Can I ask you a Scotland question, though, because this Leave alliance here...
...we've talked about the SNP and the Greens as the kind of Remain Scottish separatist side of it. But there is something quite interesting here about the Brexit party saying they'll not fight Conservatives in Conservative-incumbent seats. Because the Tories currently have a quite healthy 13 Scottish seats. Surely it really does help the Conservative party in Scotland because they can now be the Leave vote in Scotland, which is 38 per cent of the Scots voted to leave, which gets left out of the conversation quite a lot.
It may very well help. Though I think also, I think the other dynamic, which is so strong in Scotland, which is the independence dynamic, is as big a factor...
...in seats. So it's also establishing yourself as the main voice of unionism in any specific seat standing against one of the seats where the Liberals are going to push forward in that way.
Yep, that's right, Charles Kennedy's old seat on the very beautiful west coast of Scotland. It's said that, in the way that we were discussing earlier, the Labour party and the Tory party are standing candidates, but they're not putting any effort in because it looks like the Lib Dems... it's a Lib Dem versus SNP fight there to see whether they can retake the seat. But I think it's going to be really interesting whether over the next few weeks you get much more of that informal agreement to get out of the way and give a party a clear run rather than more formal alliances.
ROBERT SHRIMSLEY: I think that's right. And, I mean, it could make a huge difference because I think the psychological difference of the SNP making some gains but still being in the 40s or sweeping the board and getting up into the 50s is really meaningful particularly given the pressure they're talking about putting on Jeremy Corbyn if he's in a position to form a coalition saying, you've got to give us another referendum, and you've got to give it to us fast. So there's quite a lot to play for there as well.
Well, I think we've done our job. But I think I should do a sort of T and C's...
Terms and conditions?
...section, or a disclaimer, which is, obviously it's not to scale. It's not statistically to scale because otherwise the Labour party balloon and the Conservative balloon would be enormous. And everyone else would look very small indeed.