Nigel Farage has backed down on his threat to stand Brexit Party general election candidates in every constituency across Britain, announcing the party will not fight the 317 seats won by Tories in 2017.
The move, which he termed a “unilateral Leave alliance”, represents a boost for Boris Johnson’s Conservatives in the battle for the 12 December general election, removing the danger that they might lose seats by splitting the pro-Brexit vote.
But polling experts said it may not prove decisive to the outcome, as Mr Johnson's troops will still face Brexit Party rivals in the crucial Leave-backing Labour seats which he must win in order to secure an overall majority in the Commons.
Responding to the announcement, Mr Johnson told Sky News he had “absolutely not” done a deal with Farage, adding: “I’m glad that there is a recognition that there is only one way to get Brexit done and that is to vote for the Conservatives.”
Farage was accused of “bottling it” by supporters of continued EU membership, who stepped up calls for Remainers to vote tactically to avoid a Johnson majority.
And Jeremy 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 £500 million a week from our NHS to big drugs companies. It must be stopped."
Mr Farage has repeatedly denounced Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement with Brussels, insisting it did not deliver Brexit and would not allow the UK to “take back control”.
But he has come under intense pressure not to split the Leave vote, with former ally Arron Banks setting up a tactical voting website urging Brexit supporters in most cases to vote not for Mr Farage’s party but for the Tories.
In a speech in Hartlepool, the Brexit Party leader 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 including the Liberal Democrats with a hung parliament and second referendum “by far the most likely outcome”.
And he said he had been reassured by “a very clear change of direction” signalled by Mr Johnson in a video posted on social media on Sunday evening, in which the PM promised to negotiate a “super Canada-plus” free trade agreement with the EU and rule out any extension of talks on future relations beyond the end of 2020.
"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."
He said the Brexit Party will now "concentrate our total effort into all the seats that are held by the Labour Party, who have completely broken their manifesto pledge in 2017 to respect the result of the referendum", as well as fighting other Remain-backing parties.
The former Ukip leader claimed he had been offered a peerage as recently as Friday, but had turned it down.
“Ridiculous – the thought they can buy me, a high-paid job," he told the Mirror. "But I'm not interested, I don't want to know.”
Remain-backing Labour MP David Lammy said: “Nigel Farage bottling it by standing down in Tory seats shows how vital it is for Remainers to co-operate.
“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.”
Liberal Democrat deputy leader Ed Davey said: “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.
“As Nigel Farage has admitted, the Liberal Democrats are the only party at this election that can take seats from the Conservative, stop Brexit and build a brighter future.”
Elections guru Sir John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, said Farage's U-turn might stand in the way of Liberal Democrats claiming Tory scalps in Leave-backing constituencies in the south like North Cornwall and North Devon.
But he said: "The crucial group (of constituencies) where Boris Johnson has to make gains in order to compensate for whatever he loses elsewhere are the marginal Labour-held seats. At the moment, Nigel Farage is still going to staand in those.
"To that extent at least, 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 around 70 per cent of Brexit Party voters will back Tories and about 22 per cent Labour if Farage's party does not stand in their area, he said.
YouGov’s political research manager Chris Curtis said that current polling suggests a 4 per cent swing from Labour to the Conservatives. This could translate into Tories taking seats like Barrow and Furness, Great Grimsby, Workington, Bridgend, Gower, and Stoke-on-Trent Central from Labour, while Mr Corbyn's party wins few, if any, seats from the Conservatives," he said.
"Given this, 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," said Mr Curtis. "Despite today’s drama, this is unlikely to be a game-changing moment.”
Former Conservative MP NIck Boles even suggested that Mr Farage's effective endorsement of the prime minister's deal might make Mr Johnson's job more difficult by alienating centrist Tory voters.
"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?
Mr Farage has faced ever-louder appeals from Brexit-backing newspapers not to split the Leave vote, with the Daily Mail reporting that thousands of its readers have emailed would-be Brexit Party candidates urging them to stand down.
Former Theresa May aide Nick Timothy compared him to Frodo Baggins from Lord of the Rings, whose greed and vanity almost wrecks his lifetime’s work after he reaches the end of his quest but fails to take the final step of destroying the ring.
And his threat to fight every seat in Britain sparked a rift with insurance tycoon Mr Banks, who has been a close ally since donating £1 million to Ukip in 2014.
Mr Banks warned that the Leave.EU tactical voting app is likely to recommend Tory votes in many Brexit-backing constituencies, such as the three Stoke-on-Trent seats which split two for Labour and one for Conservatives in 2017.
A spokesman for Leave.EU said: “This app is ‘Back Brexit, back Boris’. We will tell Brexiteers the right candidates to back for Brexit.
“If that is against the Brexit Party then so be it. We have to get Boris a majority so we can get Brexit done.”
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 tactical voting website.
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