Richard North, 14/11/2019  

According to the Telegraph, the Tories did after all offer Farage an electoral pact, in exchange for him targeting just 40 key seats.

The deal was that the Tories would put up "paper candidates" in the Labour-held constituencies, carrying out only minimal campaigning in order to give Farage's party a relatively free hand. This, however, was not good enough for Farage. He wanted the Tories to drop their candidates altogether, otherwise they might still attract votes.

As a result, says The Telegraph, talks broke down late on Tuesday but, as the deadline for nominations approaches at 4pm today, Farage is still under intense pressure to stand down more of his own candidates.

Clearly, the pressure is all on Farage as another poll, this one from ComRes, shows the Brexit Party losing vote share, currently at seven percent having dropped two points since 11-12 November. Moreover, analysis of these results has the Telegraph reporting that this puts the Tories on course for a 110-seat majority.

Apparently, working-class voters are flocking to the Conservatives, redrawing the electoral map, based on divisions between leave and remain. Thus, the expectation is that the Conservatives will win 380 seats, Labour 194, Lib Dems 19, Scottish National Party 36, Brexit Party 0, Plaid Cymru 2 and Green Party 1.

With this trend undoubtedly known to Tory strategists, it is perhaps unsurprising that Johnson is in no mood to make concessions to Farage. With the scent of victory in his nostrils, even at this early stage in the campaign, the Brexit Party is looking increasingly irrelevant.

All Johnson has to do – as he did in his speech in Coventry yesterday – is repeat in his bumbling best, that only the Tories will deliver Brexit. As a rather unfortunate aside, to a largely indifferent group of factory workers, he described his efforts as a "Pot Noodle deal" – all you had to do was "add water".

The Guardian's John Crace was quick to pick up the insensitivity of that remark, but I too heard it broadcast on BBC TV's six o'clock news and observed that it would go down really well in Yorkshire, where the prime minister in office had just been, hearing complaints of his tardy response.

One would expect a Guardian writer to be critical of Johnson, and I can hardly claim any lack of bias here, but I think that any objective observer of Johnson's public speaking performances would admit that his speeches are largely an incoherent shambles and his delivery is dire. He may have some kind of magnetic charm on a one-to-one basis, but as a public performer he simply doesn't cut it.

The great fortune of the man is that he is up against Jeremy Corbyn, a politician with slightly less charisma than a plank of wood, and a delivery style that is not altogether dissimilar.

Yesterday, Corbyn was trying to pretend that Brexit didn't exist, focusing entirely on the NHS, offering a message that amounted to: whatever the Tories promise to spend, I will spend more.

Most of us, I rather feel, are already tired of these bidding wars. Apart from their unreal nature, people within the NHS are saying that the immediate problems are not money, per se, but a growing staffing crisis, with thousands of posts left unfilled. And that, whether Corbyn likes it or not, can to some extent be attributed to Brexit. Yet, the opposition leader seems set to exacerbate these problems with his promise of a four-day working week.

That said, as a frequent user of the NHS, while one would readily concede that the organisation has its problems, the bits with which I am in contact seem to be working remarkably well, and can be commended for their speed and efficiency, with minimal waiting time.

What I particularly dislike is Labour's rhetoric about privatising the NHS. Eight years ago, almost to the day, I had a life-saving heart operation – carried out in a private hospital under contract to the local health trust.

The operation didn't cost me a penny, which seems to me to conform entirely with the NHS ethos of "free at the point of delivery", and I cannot understand why there should be any objection to contracting out services to private suppliers.

Currently, I'm going though a series of diagnostic tests and these too have been contracted out to the private sector, once again with minimal waiting time and maximum efficiency – and the parking is free. I would sooner Corbyn stopped wasting his time on this wild goose chase and expended his energies on Brexit. 

Here, it is not as if he is without material to work on. We have, for instance, ex-minister David Gauke warning that a Tory majority will lead to a "disastrous" no-deal Brexit.

The former justice secretary has picked up on Johnson's intention to complete the next round of EU negotiations by the end of 2020, without calling for an extension of the transition period. He thus believes – not without good cause – that: "The Conservative Party is wanting to take the country in a dangerous direction". Far from getting Brexit done, he says, "we are going to enter into a negotiating period that isn't going to deliver a free trade agreement in time".

While Gauke wants us to "lend" our votes to the Lib-Dems, Michael Gove has rushed to defend Johnson's position, asserting that it is "feasible" a deal will be done by December 2020.

"No country is closer to the EU at the moment in terms of its economic relationship than the United Kingdom", he says, "and Simon Coveney, the Irish Deputy Prime Minister has said he believes it is entirely feasible that we can conclude all the negotiations that we need to conclude in 2020".

Never mind that both Barnier and Juncker have said that a comprehensive, Canada-style deal cannot be done in the time. A little bit of cherry-picking is the perfect antidote to any Tory problem.

Here again, though, we have had an argument we have heard before. Because we already have a high degree of integration, it goes, it should be easy to craft an agreement where most of the principles have already been established.

Needless to say, this completely misses the point. As it stands, we have a high degree of economic integration, the reward for which is that UK goods and services have a degree of access to EU markets which are not afforded to third countries.

The task which will be facing UK negotiators then becomes one of unprecedented complexity. For the first time in history, we have a nation trying to unravel one of the most sophisticated internal markets yet devised, while trying to maintain as high a level of access as possible.

At the same time, the negotiators will be trying to minimise the need to conform with the wide range of flanking policies which invariably accompany the EU's comprehensive trade deals.

By any measure, this is going to involve slow, delicate negotiations. The idea that the process can be completed in eleven months is absurd, yet here we have senior Tory politicians effectively arguing that black is white.

If it wasn't for the fact that Corbyn's own policy on Brexit was so incoherent, he could have a field day, deconstructing Johnson's mess. But so compromised is the Labour leader that his best strategy is to stay clear of Brexit and – as we saw yesterday – to focus on other issues.

The only thing is, every time politicians raise subjects in this election which aren't about Brexit, one is tempted to ask what they are hiding about their Brexit policy – what is it that they don't want us to focus on? If this is supposed to be the Brexit election, then the very least our politicians can do is keep to the point and talk about Brexit.

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