Politics

How Nigel Farage could become next Tory leader – and why we all should be concerned

As Reform send shivers down Tory spines, right-wing populist Nigel Farage is self-styling as the 'leader of the opposition'

Nigel Farage. Credit: Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try, try, try, try, try and try again.  

Right-wing populist Nigel Farage has unsuccessfully stood for parliament seven times. But his eighth attempt, as the leader of Reform UK, could finally land him a Westminster job – and prime the populist firebrand for a “hostile takeover” of the Conservative Party.

Last week, a YouGov poll gave Reform UK – a startup venture formed from the ashes of the Brexit Party, in turn formed from the ashes of UKIP – a predicted vote share of 19%, ahead of the Conservatives’ 18%.

As the poll result sends shivers down Tory spines, a delighted Farage is self-styling as the “leader of the opposition”.

“We are not pretending we are going to win this general election,” he told reporters in Wales on Monday (17 June) morning.

“Although this election is for our party, and for me, the first important step on the road to 2029. Our ambition is to establish a bridgehead in parliament and to become a real opposition to a Labour government.”

Britain’s first-past-the-post system means that Reform is unlikely to gain more than a few seats. But by hoovering up right-wing former Conservative voters, the party could turn a bad defeat for the government into an existential disaster.  

“Reform’s rise hammers yet another nail into what looks increasingly like the Conservatives’ coffin – at least at this election,” explained Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London

“The problem for Sunak and co is that they’ve already done all they can realistically do, or at least say, on immigration and culture war issues, and all it’s done is feed the Faragiste fox rather than shooting it,” he said.

So what does the Reform surge mean for the Conservative party – and the country at large?

What does Nigel Farage and Reform UK stand for?

Farage’s ‘contract’ with voters – launched in the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil – will have right-wingers frothing at the mouth.

The party has pledged to stop all illegal immigrants from settling in the UK, to scrap net zero targets, to fast-track new oil and gas licenses, and to raise the minimum threshold of income tax to £20,000 a year.

Other policies include abolishing inheritance tax on all estates under £2m, a ban on so-called ‘transgender ideology’ in schools, and to take the UK out of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Experts have described the document as uncosted. The “sums in this manifesto do not add up”, declared the Institute for Fiscal Studies.

But feasibility aside, it could appeal to disaffected former Tories. Some 68% of Reform voters voted Conservative in 2019. And by taking up to a fifth of the vote in hundreds of seats across the country, the new party could seriously deplete Tory vote share.

To counter the threat, the Conservatives have consistently moved in a more right–wing direction – particularly when it comes to immigration.

In a poll earlier this year, as many as 61% of 2019 Conservative voters said immigration will be extremely important to them in deciding how to vote in the forthcoming general election. Only half as many Labour supporters (30%) feel the same way.

Anti-immigration rhetoric has a long history in British politics, says Alan Lester, a history professor at the University of Sussex.

“For most of the time that white Britons maintained an empire, Black and brown colonial subjects were kept at arm’s length–- their lands and labour exploited overseas and relatively few British subjects of colour resident within the British Isles,” he said.

“The emigration of white Britons to settler colonies like those in North America, southern and eastern Africa and Australasia was taken for granted, but a reverse flow of colonised people of colour to Britain was neither anticipated nor welcomed.”

After the Second World War, Britain faced massive labour shortages and in 1948 the doors were opened to colonial subjects overseas to rebuild the ‘motherland’. But the government expected white Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and South Africans, explains Lester.

“When it became clear that Black and brown people from the Caribbean and South Asian colonies were also moving to Britain in large numbers, the open doors were suddenly seen as ‘floodgates’,” he said.

“This was why, despite being sacked for his racist ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in 1968, Enoch Powell received widespread support. Scapegoating immigrants, but particularly immigrants of colour, for our social and economic problems, has always been an undercurrent of British political life, but it has been galvanised again by the populist right’s simplistic responses to the post 2008 economic crises.”

Nigel Farage has politically profiteered of this racist undercurrent – and he’s good at getting away with it, says Lester.

“Farage is very clever at talking about race while not talking explicitly about race.

“Let me give an example. In one of the televised election debates recently, he spent much of his time in the spotlight bemoaning the numbers of immigrants swelling the overall population and claiming that it was this population pressure that was putting our public services and housing stock under strain,” Lester said.

“Yet, when asked about the two-child benefit cap he said that he wanted to encourage British people to have larger families. The answer to that apparent contradiction is obvious although unstated. Certain kinds of people are welcome to swell the overall population, while certain other kinds are not.”

Reform UK’s manifesto pledges a “freeze” on non-essential immigration “to protect our culture and identity” in the first few pages. Immigrants who commit crimes would have citizenship withdrawn.

The Tories have tried to stem the bleeding to the right of the party with a series of hardline pledges, including deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda.

But such pandering has backfired, Bale explains. By continually talking about right-wing issues for the past decade, the Conservatives have given Farage and his ilk oxygen.

“The Conservatives have, since 2010, become obsessed with the threat from the insurgency on their right, leading them to slip their moorings as a mainstream centre-right outfit and head towards becoming an ersatz populist radical right party,” he said.

“They would have been far better not trying to desperately (and ultimately unconvincingly) outbid UKIP/the Brexit Party/Reform UK and stick to trying to improve the economy and public services, which are the main concerns of most voters.”

What will happen to Reform UK after the election?

Nigel Farage has said he wants to stand for prime minister in 2029, which would require him being the leader of the largest party in parliament.

It’s highly improbable that Reform will rustle up the required 376 seats.

But if the Conservatives receive an electoral drubbing on 4 July, the party’s right-wingers could look to bring Farage and his Reform cronies into the fold. It’s a possibility that Farage himself has floated.

“Something new is going to emerge on the center-right,” he told LBC Radio last week.

“I don’t know what it’s called – but do I think I could end up leading a national opposition to a Labour party with a big majority, where I can stand up and hold them to account on issues? Yes.”

Suella Braverman recently said that the party should welcome Farage. The prospect of ‘uniting the right’ could appeal to many Tories, said Bale.

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“If that happens, I certainly would bet on Farage eventually replacing whoever takes over from Sunak after this election,” he added.

It’s still possible that a centrist Conservative could bring the party back towards the political middle ground, Lester said, but added: “I cannot see a contender for the role at present. It is still the extremist right wingers who are making the most noise.”

“Nigel Farage would obviously like to lead a hostile takeover of the Conservative Party, he said.

“If that occurs we will see an even greater purge of centrists and one-nation Tories than the one that Boris Johnson initiated to ‘get Brexit done’.”

“My main hope is that the narcissism that also tends to characterise right wing populist demagogues means that they will never form a unified front.”

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