You know that an event has not gone well for a politician if they spend it hiding in a toilet to avoid the press. It’s an old trick and effective, in its way – but it isn’t a tactic steeped in dignity. Pity, therefore, Nigel Farage who swept into Peterborough expecting a triumph and whose night ended with him locked in the gents refusing to speak to the TV crews.
On paper, it was not so bad a night for the Brexit Party that it demanded this game of hide and seek. After all, for a new party to go from creation to coming second in a by-election in less than a year is quite something. One imagines the remnants of Change UK would give their eye for such a result. And the result was close, despite Labour’s massively superior and more experienced ground operation and the Conservative Party’s regicidal preoccupations. But in truth, last night was deeply worrying for Farage and for his party.
The success of the Brexit Party in the European elections – and polling subsequently – had created a tantalising narrator for Farageists. Contrary to popular imagination it is possible in a first past the post system for a new party to breakthrough and to replace one of the established parties. If you don’t believe that, just ask the liberals. Their displacement in favour of Labour was fairly swift, fairly brutal and fairly permanent. Wales went from overwhelmingly Liberal to overwhelmingly Labour in a single election and has stayed that way pretty much ever since. Yes, it is harder for new parties to get into Parliament under our system than it is under PR. But at a certain tipping point, first past the post actually works in a new movement’s favour – allowing them to sweep up seats and kill off their main competitor on either the Left or the Right. Briefly, it looked as though the Brexit Party was doing so well (and the Tories so badly) that such a tipping point might be achievable. But Peterborough is a timely reminder that such a moment is by no means given. And that matters for two reasons.
One, it tells Tory MPs and Tory members that Farage is not quite the all-conquering bogeyman that they fear he is. It is not a given that he always wins and if he cannot win in Peterborough (which voted by 61% for Brexit) then where – exactly – would he win? This being the case, perhaps the extraordinary measures that some Tory members and MPs have been contemplating in order to fight off the Farage threat (i.e. taking a punt on Boris) aren’t necessary after all? Last night’s result is a good one for Michael Gove and Jeremy Hunt as it lessons (ever so slightly) the ‘only Boris can beat him’ momentum of the moment.
The second reason that Peterborough matters is that it sends a strong psychological signal to right-wing voters. Labour have held the seat despite their previous MP going to prison and their current candidate being engulfed in an antisemitism scandal. How? Well because their vote held on while the right vote fractured. The Brexit Party let Labour in. In order for that tipping point to be reached, voters have to believe that the new party can actually strip out all the support of the party it is seeking to replace and then beat the enemy – in this case Labour. In Peterborough that failed to happen. A lot of Brexit supporters really do passionately want Nigel Farage’s Britain, but they are equally passionate in their fear of what Corbyn’s Britain might mean for them. If they believe that voting Brexit Party will let Labour in, nationally, many will hold their noses to return to the Tory fold.
So, the result in Peterborough poses difficult questions both for Nigel Farage and for those he is asking to put their faith in him and his new party. And pause for thought, too, for those Tories who neither like nor trust Boris Johnson but who feel they have no choice to but to back him at this time of crisis. A status quo result, but one which nonetheless alters the landscape a little. You could say, in the spirit of Nigel’s hiding place, that it flushed out some home truths for the right.