Nigel Farage is facing calls from Brexit supporters to stand down further candidates to help Boris Johnson after he made a dramatic public U-turn by agreeing to withdraw his party from all Conservative-held seats.
The Brexit party leader claimed he had changed his mind about fielding candidates in 317 seats held by the Tories after Johnson released a video pledging to take Britain out of the EU by 2020 and to pursue a Canada-style trade deal.
The abrupt nature of Farage’s reversal prompted claims from Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the SNP that he and Johnson had struck a secret pact in favour of a hard Brexit, which both sides denied. Farage admitted he had been offered a peerage by the Tories as recently as last Friday but claimed he had turned this down.
Senior Tories are now pressing behind the scenes for Farage to make further concessions and stand back in Labour-held target seats, after Farage conceded that the presence of his party in those contests could lead to a hung parliament and a second referendum.
Farage claimed he now had more “optimism” about Johnson’s Brexit deal after the prime minister’s clarifications, having previously condemned it as a “sellout” and not a real Brexit.
“I have got no great love for the Conservative party at all, but I can see right now that by giving Boris half a chance … and stopping the fanatics in the Liberal Democrats – they even want to revoke the result of the referendum – I think our action, our announcement today, prevents a second referendum from happening,” he said.
He pledged to pour his resources into targeting seats held by remain parties and Labour, who accused Farage and Johnson of entering into an “alliance with Donald Trump to sell out our country”.
Johnson welcomed Farage’s decision but did not address questions about whether he had offered him a peerage or knighthood and whether the video making fresh promises of a hard Brexit had been coordinated to help the Brexit party leader climb down.
Some pro-Brexit Tories are hoping for further movement from Farage in the coming days, possibly in terms of focusing the party’s financial resources on a small number of seats where the Conservatives have little chance of winning and came third to Ukip in 2015.
Steve Baker, a leading Tory Eurosceptic, said: “This is a welcome announcement but the reality is that until Boris has got a clear majority in parliament then Brexit is at risk and indeed the future of the country. I hope the right decisions will be taken overall to make that possible.”
Senior Conservatives suggested there was still time for Farage to row back from standing candidates in Tory target areas before Friday’s deadline.
“Our whole strategy relies on winning new seats. That’s what’s at stake in the next few days. If they’re now in the business of deciding we need to get this thing done, they need to make some more choices,” one Brexiter Conservative candidate said.
But a senior Brexit party source dismissed the idea outright and claimed the party still planned to run in every Labour-held constituency. “The Tories can take a running jump. We’ve just saved them 40 or 50 seats and they are still moaning,” the source said.
Farage himself sent an email to supporters on Monday night pledging: “We will contest every seat held by Corbyn’s remainer Labour party, which has openly betrayed five million Labour leave voters. And we will stand in all seats held by the other remainer parties.”
The Brexit party claimed it was helping the Tories by standing candidates in Labour-held areas, as it was taking votes off Corbyn’s party more than Johnson’s in places such as the super-marginal of Bishop Auckland. However, it is more widely believed by pollsters that Farage takes around two votes off the Conservatives for every one vote off Labour.
Pollsters and political experts were split over whether the decision would have much effect. Polls suggest the Tories will hold on to many of their seats but need to win key Labour targets to reach a majority.
Chris Curtis, YouGov’s political research manager, said: “Farage’s decision to stand aside in current Conservative-held seats and not in Labour-held seats that the Tories will be looking to gain will likely make very little difference.” He said it was “unlikely to be a game-changing moment”.
However, James Johnson, a former polling expert for Theresa May, said the substance of Farage’s move would be significant. “On paper, Farage’s decision still makes it harder for the Tories to gain seats. But in practice I expect this will seriously harm the general attractiveness of the Brexit party. Voters everywhere will see this as the party admitting that a vote for it is one that could undermine Brexit.”
In Scotland, the Brexit party will field candidates in “most if not all” seats, except the 13 held by Conservatives, Farage said. Asked about candidates and members who might be feeling disheartened at being asked to stand aside for the Tories, Farage said: “Making a big decision like this is difficult.”
He said all those who had put themselves forward as candidates had been aware they might be asked to stand down and “put country first”. He claimed that at a meeting where they were told this, they applauded.
Labour strategists were not too downhearted about Farage’s announcement. They said they would be trying to test the potential impact of the decision on Labour seats in the Midlands and the north of England in the coming days using polling, focus groups and canvass returns.
They fear the absence of a Brexit party candidate could make it easier for the Tories to hold on to some of those seats Labour is targeting, such as Blackpool North. But in Labour-held seats, they believe the presence of Farage’s party could help them to avoid being unseated by the Tories.
One Labour candidate said: “In terms of the heartlands Labour-held seats, what we want there is that there is both a Brexit and a Tory candidate.”
Farage made his announcement in the Brexit party target seat of Hartlepool. He said his party’s climbdown had come after months of unsuccessfully trying to create a leave alliance with the Tories.
At the rally in the County Durham seat, which voted 70% to leave the UK, Farage said he had concluded that if the Brexit party stood a candidate in every seat, it could split the vote and usher in dozens of Liberal Democrat MPs, in turn creating the circumstances for a second referendum.
Farage said he had been reassured after Johnson said he would not accept an extension of the transition period for Britain leaving the EU beyond the end of 2020.
The prime minister has also said he will negotiate a “super Canada-plus” trade deal with no political alignment, which he says is closer to what leave voters want.
Some people in the audience at Farage’s announcement sighed with disappointment. However, one local supporter, Dave Paul, said he trusted Farage’s strategy. “He’s Mr Brexit. We are right behind Nigel,” he said.
Alice Burke, from Buckinghamshire, who said she had been in the area and decided to attend the Hartlepool rally, said: “My experience of Nigel is he’s a well-thought-through strategist. He’s probably agonised over this decision but he’s got the courage to stand up for what he believes in. I don’t think he looks weak. It’s a well thought-out strategy. He can’t please everybody.”
Richard Tice, the Brexit party chairman, who is running in Hartlepool, said: “I think I’ve got a really good chance of winning and if I can win, and a reasonable number of other Brexit party candidates can win, then we can hold them [the Conservatives] to account and then be like the DUP.”