Labour Remainers are pressing Jeremy Corbyn to cooperate with other parties to stop a majority Conservative government, after Nigel Farage backed down from his threat to stand Brexit Party candidates in every constituency in Britain in the 12 December election.
Despite repeatedly denouncing Boris Johnson’s EU withdrawal deal as “Brexit in name only”, Mr Farage said he had come to the conclusion that standing down candidates in all 317 seats won by Tories at the last election was the only way he could block a second referendum.
The former Ukip leader claimed to have rejected the offer of a peerage last week – something which a Tory source rejected as “utter garbage”. Mr Johnson said he had “absolutely not” done a deal with the Brexit Party leader.
But opposition parties said Mr Farage’s decision to enter what he referred to as a “unilateral Leave alliance” effectively meant Conservatives and the Brexit Party were fighting the general election in league with one another.
Mr Corbyn said: “One week ago Donald Trump told Nigel Farage to make a pact with Boris Johnson. Today, Trump got his wish. This Trump alliance is Thatcherism on steroids and could send £500m a week from our NHS to big drugs companies. It must be stopped.”
And Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson said: “The Conservative Party are the Brexit Party now.”
Remain-backing Labour MP David Lammy said it was now “vital” for opponents of Brexit from all parties to cooperate, while Labour’s Hove MP Peter Kyle told The Independent it was time for the party to “apply common sense” in constituencies where it had no hope of winning, to give others a better chance of defeating Tories.
Polling experts suggested that while Mr Farage’s U-turn would make it easier for Mr Johnson to defend marginal Tory seats in southern England under threat from the Liberal Democrats, it would do little to help Conservatives win the Leave-backing Labour seats the prime minister needs to secure a majority in the House of Commons.
Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde said: “Nigel Farage’s offer doesn’t really give the prime minister the prize he would really want, which is a free run against Labour where the Labour Party stands between him and an overall majority.”
Recent polling suggests that about 70 per cent of Brexit Party voters will back Tories and about 22 per cent Labour if Mr Farage’s party does not stand in their area, he said.
And Chris Curtis of pollsters YouGov said that the impact of Mr Farage’s climbdown would probably be limited, at a time when polls suggest Labour is unlikely to pick up significant numbers of seats from the Tories. “Despite today’s drama, this is unlikely to be a game-changing moment,” he said.
But former Conservative MP Nick Boles, who quit the party over its rejection of a soft Brexit, said that Mr Farage’s effective endorsement of the Tory position might rebound against Mr Johnson.
“There are millions of Conservative Remainers who, like me, were willing to back a soft Brexit,” said Mr Boles. “How will they react on discovering that Johnson’s Brexit deal is hard enough for Nigel Farage?”
Speaking in Hartlepool, Mr Farage said that his change of heart was prompted by a video posted on social media by Mr Johnson on Sunday, in which the PM promised to strike a Canada-style free trade deal with no regulatory alignment with the EU and ruled out any extension to talks beyond the end of December 2020.
He said the comments signalled “a very clear change of direction” by the prime minister.
And he said he had decided overnight that fighting all 632 seats in England, Scotland and Wales was likely to lead to large numbers of gains by Remain-backing parties, with a hung parliament and second referendum “by far the most likely outcome”.
“I think our action, this announcement today, prevents a second referendum from happening,” said Mr Farage.
“And that to me, I think right now, is the single most important thing in our country.
“So in a sense we now have a Leave alliance, it’s just that we’ve done it unilaterally.
“We’ve decided ourselves that we absolutely have to put country before party and take the fight to Labour.”
Nigel Farage bottling it by standing down in Tory seats shows how vital it is for Remainers to cooperate.
We cannot allow this hard right alliance between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage - dancing to the tune of Donald Trump - to permanently wreck our country. https://t.co/wMyMsPFaRq— David Lammy (@DavidLammy)November 11, 2019
Mr Lammy said: “Nigel Farage bottling it by standing down in Tory seats shows how vital it is for Remainers to cooperate.
“We cannot allow this hard-right alliance between Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – dancing to the tune of Donald Trump – to permanently wreck our country.”
And Mr Kyle told The Independent: “I, along with the Labour Party, have campaigned for a referendum. The government is trying to make this a Brexit election. They want all the outcomes of a referendum without having the challenge of making their Brexit deal the only thing under discussion.
“In these circumstances, Labour needs to do whatever it takes to ensure this election is not poisoned by Brexit. That means applying common sense in some constituencies where Labour don’t have a hope. I think that is what the country needs and what Labour should deliver.
“I don’t think we should be looking at party interests first right now. The stakes for our economy and our society are so high, we should be acting firstly in the national interest and hope that other parties do similarly.”
.@EdwardJDavey: “Nigel Farage standing down shows the Conservatives and the Brexit party are now one and the same. Johnson’s hard right Brexit takeover of the Tory party has now been endorsed by both Trump and Farage.” #GE2019 pic.twitter.com/3J98KlbqZi— Lib Dem Press Office (@LibDemPress)November 11, 2019
Mr Farage had been coming under intense pressure not to split the Leave vote, with newspaper editorials urging him to stand down his candidates and former ally Arron Banks setting up a tactical voting website urging Brexit supporters in most cases to vote for the Tories.
The chief executive of the Best for Britain campaign for a second referendum, Naomi Smith, said: “Farage has bottled it and hung most of his own candidates out to dry.”
Ms Smith said it was “now more important than ever that Remainers use their votes wisely,” adding: “Our best chance of stopping a nightmarish government delivering a hard and damaging Brexit is voting tactically.”
Best for Britain believes that Mr Johnson could be denied a majority if just a third of Remainers follow the advice of its getvoting.org tactical voting website. Alternative websites remainunited.org and tactical-vote.uk are also offering advice on tactical voting to prevent Brexit.
The Liberal Democrats, Greens and Plaid Cymru have agreed not to stand against each other in 60 seats to avoid splitting the Remain vote, but Labour took no part in the Unite to Remain scheme.
Meanwhile, Greens in Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford and Woodford Green constituency announced a local decision to stand down their candidate in the hope of helping Labour unseat the former Conservative leader.