Picture credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP via Getty Images
Artillery Row

No more Mr Boring

Farage is making politics fun again

Nigel Farage is back. In a surprise announcement, Richard Tice stepped aside, reinstating Farage as leader. And it was hard to disagree with his opening remarks: “Thus far it is the dullest, most boring election campaign we have ever seen in our lives. And it’s funny, because the more the two big party leaders try to be different, the more they actually sound the same.”

And in that moment, Farage was clearly speaking for the country. As heartily tired of the Tories as the electorate clearly are, there is little sense of enthusiasm for Labour, more a collective feeling that someone, anyone else needs to be given the wheel. Keir Starmer is not a disliked candidate, but he consistently polls behind his party — he is not exciting, and is not seen as an embodiment of political change.

A massive part of Farage’s appeal is simply that he’s entertaining. If this seems trivial, it shouldn’t be. It’s a central feature of every successful populist movement and campaign, from Johnson in 2019, to Trump in 2016. As politics has become ever more technocratic, language is softened, and ideology converges at the top, it ceases to engage or interest people, generating boredom, anger and cynicism.

Compared to the stage-managed gestures of the main two party leaders, and their white-fingered grip on every word, Farage is both engaging and refreshing. Jokes fly thick and fast, premises of questions are accepted, and the evasions are done with a knowing wink. Given the choice between Farage on their TV screens versus shrill, desperately spinning centrists, who wouldn’t plumb for the former, purely on the basis of fun. 

It was hard to dispute most of his observations about the state of the country either — neither Sunak nor Starmer are willing to admit what is obvious to nearly everyone: “Nothing in this country works anymore. The health service doesn’t work. The roads don’t work. None of our public services are up to scratch. We are in decline.”

The willingness to name problems, talk like a real person and to make politics exciting, rather than a grim, dispiriting chore, is not something to be lightly dismissed, even if (like me) you don’t think Farage has the answers to the problems he rightly names. 

If figures like Trump and Farage are opportunists, they have been given plenty of opportunity by a political class that is relentlessly dull, stilted and passionless. Rationally directed political passion is the essence of a successful democracy, but we have successfully divided the two, leading to rationalism unmoored from human reality, and ferocious hysterias unattached to coherent programmes. 

Is Farage the man to change that? Perhaps not, but he may yet startle some people awake. What are his hopes of winning, and what does winning look like? Media cynicism, with a hefty dose of willing the outcome of their analysis, has often been scathing, but he may have a real chance this time. A recent poll puts him 10 points ahead of the Conservative candidate in Clacton, where he will be running, meaning that in a month’s time, Farage could be entering parliament for the first time. Meanwhile, a national poll has Reform just 4 points behind the Conservatives — more weeks of hapless Tory gaffs and the effect of Farage could, the party clearly hopes, close that gap further. As he said this afternoon: “I’ve done it before. I’ll do it again. I’ll surprise everybody.”

when it comes to it, a populist party is a good thing for British politics

Grand ambitions to replace the Conservatives are improbable under first past the post, but this could be a breakthrough moment, even a handful of MPs, even just Farage alone, would give the party a toe-hold that could allow them to command disproportionate media attention. Despite improbable claims that the Tories need to shed the “toxicity” of a right wing cultural politics they never managed to actually carry out, the long-term presence of Reform on the national stage would act a permanent electoral threat to Tory leaders tempted to tack to the technocratic, Blairite “centre ground”.

There are plenty of criticisms that you can make of Farage, but when it comes to it, a populist party is a good thing for British politics. The two party system is stale, and third parties are almost all relentlessly right-on, Nimbyish clubs for the well-to-do. A breath of fresh air, or even a gust of Faragian hot air, may be just what is needed to blow away the cobwebs. 

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

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

Critic magazine cover