Picture Credit: Carl Court/Getty Images

Here comes trouble

Farage is going to cause huge headaches for the Tories, and may be here to stay

Artillery Row

Rishi Sunak’s decision to call a general election in July was baffling for several reasons. There had been a strong Conservative case for going to the country earlier than he had to – but that was in May, when it could have coincided with the local elections.

After that, the obvious choice seemed to be going long: reach the two-year mark in October, give the benefits of lower interest rates time to feed through to voters, and hold a final pre-election fiscal event full of as many giveaways as Jeremy Hunt could scrape together.

Farage worked out that the election had come too early to escape

Going in July, on the other hand, looked like an act of despair. Not only did the Prime Minister give up the Autumn Statement, he also had to abandon the key planks of his legacy agenda – the smoking ban, the Advanced British Standard – in the legislative wash-up at the end of the Parliament.

To this list, we can now add another: Sunak started the campaign at a point when Nigel Farage was still able, albeit at the eleventh hour, to take part in it.

Had the election been scheduled for November, as was widely anticipated, the American presidential race would be reaching its climax. Farage would almost certainly be a full-time Fox News pundit, safely tucked away on the other side of the Atlantic with a clutch of lucrative gigs he wouldn’t be minded to pass up to gamble everything on a rickety stage at a sports centre at three in the morning.

Even now, he almost didn’t. But eventually, Farage worked out that the election had come too early to escape; his protestations about having “huge regrets” at not standing, whilst there was still time to stand, looked ridiculous. 

So now he’s standing, for the eighth time – and in Clacton, the only seat ever to return a UKIP MP at a general election. His odds of finally entering the House of Commons must be as short as they’ve ever been. That most likely heralds a world of political campaign for the Conservatives.

That was apparent even at his campaign launch. Yes, he went hard on immigration. But the Tories’ record on that is so dire that even Labour are making a go of it. But what Reform UK can do, which Labour will not, is directly link immigration to other hot-button issues such as the cost of living and housing. 

Indeed, that last point was perhaps the most interesting part of Farage’s pitch: that the cost of housing, be that rents or mortgages, is one of the biggest single reasons why so many households are struggling financially.

Reform UK may not offer much of a concrete agenda on this, no pun intended. Its best shot at a good result is scooping up a certain type of disaffected Tory voter, and promising to build lots of houses isn’t going to do that.

But Farage, much like the Liberal Democrats, is free from the accountability that comes with the prospect of power. His solutions don’t need to be realistic for him to keep hammering away at an issue – and spiralling rents and mortgages are a big deal to millions of working-age voters who have walked away from the Conservatives.

One can see it playing out in other arenas, too. Take law-and-order. Whilst Labour did have a go at a big announcement last week, they haven’t yet gone really hard at what ought to be a glaring weakness for the Government: the prisons crisis. 

Ministers have quietly extended a scheme to release inmates 70 days early; police chiefs have been advised to pause “low-priority arrests”; judges have for years been handing down lenient sentences in part because there isn’t the space to house everyone they would like to send down. Why isn’t it on all the posters?

Farage will have a platform to justify the media paying continued attention

Because as far as I can see, Labour isn’t proposing to build lots of new prisons either. Not only would it involve yet another assault on our planning system (which they’ve been reluctant to do even where it is entirely to their advantage, such as planting new towns in Tory shires), but going on a spending spree to build new jails – at a time when there isn’t going to be new money for much of anything – would be deeply divisive inside the party.

In policy terms, this means Yvette Cooper’s proposals will probably not in practice amount to more than another round of smoke and mirrors. But in political terms, it means Sir Keir Starmer – who, as a former Director of Public Prosecutions, could draw a powerful line on this stuff – has decided, for now at least, not to do so.

Farage need not have such reservations. Especially when he can easily link the shortage of prison places (and crime in general) to back to his new unifying theme of immigration.

What about after the election? Even if he wins, Farage is likely to be the only Reform MP, which sets a limit on what he can achieve in parliamentary terms; Caroline Lucas hardly set the world on fire (pun, again, not intended) during her long stint as the sole Green.

But in the medium term, it could make a huge difference. It would forestall the risk of Reform fading away: they will have access to Short Money; Farage will have a platform to justify the media paying continued attention. Perhaps more significantly, he will also have unprecedented access to Conservative MPs – just at the point when the party’s internal debate about what the hell happened is starting in earnest.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover