Picture credit: HENRY NICHOLLS / Contributor
Artillery Row

Reform can perform

Has Britain found its insurgent populist party?

When it rains, it pours — following a drizzly start to the general election campaign, yesterday marked the gloomiest day yet for Rishi Sunak, as Nigel Farage burst back onto the scene in explosive fashion.

Injecting much-needed energy into a lethargic campaign, Farage announced his plans to take over the leadership of Reform UK, and to stand for election in Clacton, the Essex seat that returned UKIP’s sole MP in 2015. Once again, the greatest showman in British politics has captured the attention of the chattering classes who so despise him.

Like a cigarette-scented poltergeist, Farage has long haunted the Conservative Party. Threats of his return were judiciously deployed to instil discipline into wavering Tory backbenchers — “tack too far to the centre, and the Big Bad Farage will come and eat into your majority”. Yet, like the 17th century Royal Navy under Lord Torrington, it was assumed that Farage was most powerful as a “fleet in being”; in other words, it was assumed that the MEP-turned-pundit would be able to exercise greatest influence from the sidelines, safely insulated from the loose shrapnel of frontline politics.

As it turns out, some bogeymen are real after all. Last week, I compared Farage to Cincinnatus, albeit a pale imitation of the famous Roman statesman who left behind his plough to rescue the res publica in its hour of need. Yesterday’s performance might more readily draw comparisons to Julius Caesar, featuring open calls for political revolt and a refreshingly irreverent attitude towards the usual lobby journalists.

Like Caesar, Farage straddles the line between visionary and opportunist. His promises to shake up the status quo are doubtless sincere, but it is difficult to ignore that he has chosen a particularly advantageous moment to return to the spotlight. The Tory Party is at its weakest point in living memory, dissatisfaction with mainstream politicians is at an all time high, and mass migration has pushed public tolerance to breaking point.

Even more cynically, we might infer that this decision was partly influenced by the recent charges against Donald Trump over in America; promises of a well-paid sinecure in Washington are less likely to materialise if Farage’s guarantor ends up behind bars before November.

Ironically, Farage’s return gives this election a decidedly European flavour. Much like our genteel continental cousins with their al fresco dining and urbane alcoholism, the British now have a credible, insurgent right-wing populist party able to mount a serious challenge to the political establishment.

Much like in Europe, Britain’s very own ailing party of the mainstream right must now decide how to respond to the insurgency. For at least two decades now, centre-right movements on the continent have adopted a variety of approaches to their more radical counterparts – some have opted to move closer to the centre, while others have preferred to steal the most palatable ideas of the populist right and run with them. Others still have practically been wiped out or cannibalised.

Early reports seem to suggest that Rishi’s team will respond with ambitious plans to crack down on migration and change our relationship with the ECHR. This is deeply foolish; it will not be possible for the Tories to run to the right of Farage on immigration. After fourteen years spent presiding over historically high rates of migration, promises to get tough will fall on deaf ears. Voters no longer trust the Conservative Party to deliver serious reductions to immigration — and why should they?

In that case, maybe the Conservatives should instead seek to win over disaffected middle-class voters who are turning to the Liberal Democrats in droves. However, this strategy is not without its pitfalls either. Spend too much time appealing to Liberal-facing voters, and the Party risks alienating what little remains of its right flank, lending credence to Faragist narratives about the Blairite uniparty.

Perhaps the best allegory for the Tory Party’s current predicament is that of Canada circa 1993. In that election, unpopular Conservative incumbent Kim Campbell faced a devastating defeat, losing all but two seats. To her left, Campbell faced the boring but competent Liberals and to her right, the insurgent Reform Party (sound familiar?) led by long-time agitator Preston Manning. Division on the right gifted the Liberals thirteen years in government; the Conservative Party that eventually came back into power in 2006 was a fusion of the old Progressive Conservative Party and Manning’s Reform. Those who find comfort in historical patterns would do well to brush up on their late 20th century Canadian political history.

Farage is not a man to run the risk of a bruised ego without a very good reason to do so

Of course, Farage’s bombshell announcement delivered little substantive change. For most of the voting public, Nigel was already the face of Reform. The real announcement is that Farage is now committed to taking a leading role in this campaign, and genuinely believes that Reform could have a lasting impact on British politics. His decision to stand in Clacton, following the public humiliation of his defeat in Thanet South back in 2015, demonstrates a sincere confidence in Reform’s chances at this election. Farage is not a man to run the risk of a bruised ego without a very good reason to do so.

It was also interesting to see Farage’s recognition of the enormous dissatisfaction amongst young voters, who are being let down by our broken economic system. Stick the landing, and Reform could win over thousands of young voters who naturally feel at home on the right but who cannot bring themselves to vote for the pensioner-baiting Tories. This will take much more than amusing social media videos and throwaway references to the housing crisis; if it wants to capitalise on this frustration, Reform will need a real plan to tackle soaring house prices and deliver greater economic opportunity for working-age voters.

Like it or not, this election is no longer about Keir Starmer or Rishi Sunak. Most sensible commentators have now accepted that Starmer will win a confident majority, before presiding over a dull, technocratic government that entrenches the worst anti-democratic legacies of Blairism while failing to grapple with major structural problems. For his part, Rishi Sunak will likely skulk off to California, destined for a well-paid job on the board of a faceless fintech firm.  

The fight now is a fight for the soul of the right, and a fight to define what British politics will look like for the coming decades. The next thirty years will force our political class to grapple with economic stagnation, political gridlock, declining global relevance, and the impacts of enormous demographic change.

Our ability to face up to those challenges will, to a great extent, be determined by the strength, coherence, and competence of the British right. Though he lacks clear answers to many of these big questions, Farage’s role as a disruptor could serve to shake things up and create the space for an ideological renaissance. It’s certainly a more cogent strategy than relying on the same tired figures who presided over the Conservative Party’s recent failures for more than a decade.  

Some commentators have compared Farage’s efforts to destroy the Tories at this election to Enoch Powell’s decision to endorse Labour in the February 1974 general election. Though he would never lead the Party that he so spectacularly betrayed, Powell would go on to influence the direction of Conservative politics long after his departure from the Tory benches. Margaret Thatcher’s triumph over Edward Heath in 1975 would see many of Powell’s ideas — if not Powell himself — win acclaim within the Conservative mainstream.

Could Farage play a similar role, pushing the Tory Party to an embarrassing defeat and influencing its future direction by doing so? Maybe — but this time feels different. The Conservative Party has not been so weak in living memory, and a successful Reform campaign could cast doubt over the future of the British right. Even a handful of Reform seats could spell the end for two-party politics as we know it.

It’s all to play for; the crown now lies in the gutter. Will Nigel be the one to pick it up with his sword?

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