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Boris Johnson Should Be Thanking the Lib Dems

The Liberal Democrats’ hypocritical “Remain Alliance” betrays their own voters and threatens to hand Boris Johnson a majority. It should be called what it is — a pathway to a Tory majority.

Lib Dem politician Heidi Allen with Green Party MEP Molly Scott Cato, Plaid Cymru MP Liz Saville-Roberts, and president of the UK Liberal Democrats Sal Brinton at a press conference announcing a "remain alliance pact" with the Liberal Democrats, Green and Plaid Cymru on November 7, 2019 in London, England. Chris J Ratcliffe / Getty Images

In the UK, polls are narrowing slowly in the still early days of the election campaign. Most survey trackers put the Conservatives at around 39–40 percent of the vote, while Labour have risen to eight to ten percentage points behind them. The Liberal Democrats and Greens have both fallen, after much hype. The “Remain Alliance,” the electoral pact in which the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, and Welsh nationalists Plaid Cymru have agreed not to run candidates against one another in sixty districts, aims to coalesce the vote around these small parties, on the grounds that they are the true anti-Brexiteers: Plaid Cymru and the Greens argue for a second referendum on European Union membership, while the Liberal Democrats promise to revoke Article 50 and remain in the EU without a public vote if they emerge as the biggest party.

The fact that the Liberal Democrats definitely won’t win a majority swiftly caused some dissent within the new alliance: Labour’s policy is to negotiate a new Brexit deal if it wins, and then put that deal to a second referendum alongside the option to Remain. This has left some Green and Liberal Democrat candidates and local parties uneasy: if they split the anticipated Remain vote, they risk letting Conservative candidates beat Labour in marginal districts, and would thus be responsible for ensuring a Brexit delivered by Boris Johnson’s party.

In Northern Ireland, the electoral pacts were simpler and met with little consternation. In a handful of seats, the Remain parties — Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Alliance Party, and the Greens — stood aside for the candidate most likely to beat the Democratic Unionist Party, the hard-line pro-Brexit party that entered into a confidence-and-supply deal with Theresa May’s Conservatives immediately after the 2017 election saw the then prime minister lose her majority in a fit of hubris.

Forging such an alliance in Britain was tougher: Labour’s constitution means standing down for Liberal Democrats or Greens would break the party’s own rules. Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson was bullish and outspoken in her total opposition and antipathy to Jeremy Corbyn, stating she would never engage in any pact that would see him enter power. In Canterbury, a marginal seat that Labour gained from the Conservatives in a surprise victory in 2017, the Lib Dem candidate Tim Walker stood down after his selection was announced, stating it was a personal rather than party decision. Immediately, the Lib Dems began disciplinary proceedings against him, prompting another Lib Dem candidate in High Peak, Guy Kiddey, to threaten to quit the party unless they issued an apology to Walker. Kiddey urged voters to back Labour and “do the noble thing” before being dropped as a candidate.

Meanwhile, the Brexit Party announced they would not field candidates in 317 seats held by the Conservatives, to prevent Labour winning Tory seats by peeling away the incumbents’ votes. This provoked fury among many Brexit candidates, who had paid £100 to run and were unclear whether those fees would be refunded or pocketed as donations. The Conservatives fought harder to formalize the pact, with Nigel Farage claiming he had been offered several jobs and seats in the House of Lords in return for standing down in even more seats with close Labour/Tory vote tallies, an offer that is probably illegal and that Number 10 vociferously denied. For Brexit Party voters, it seemed a clear betrayal: after endlessly decrying Johnson’s deal as weak and pushing for a “harder Brexit,” Farage appeared happy to climb down. The move doesn’t necessarily ensure the Conservatives return to power: all electoral scenarios are still volatile, and both Labour and Conservative 2017 voters could still turn elsewhere, or not vote at all.

All parties are facing the hard fact that one of two outcomes is inevitable: the UK leaves the EU, or it remains. All have different preferences on the final outcome but would prefer one of the two final endpoints. But forging electoral pacts risks alienating core voters by publicly allying with parties that diverge widely on many other policies, on education, health, economic, social, and foreign policy. Openly standing aside risks being seen as depriving voters of a choice, while also, in the case of the Remain Alliance, being seen to deliver the least desired Brexit outcome to their voters.

Discussion on pacts has focused near exclusively on Brexit. Now, with the deadline for nominations passed, campaigning on manifesto issues will begin in earnest. Here the election becomes less predictable: public responses to manifesto pledges will be key, and the policies parties choose, and how they fare in the media, will be key to how public support shifts for each party as polling day approaches. The Conservatives will want to focus keenly on Brexit and immigration, while Labour will be seeking to hammer the Tories on their record on health and education after a decade of austerity, promising a better National Health Service, a Green New Deal, and better funded education at all ages.

Talk of pacts will fade into the background for now — but if, as remains likely, the election returns a hung parliament, these fraught conversations and compromises will come to the fore again.