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Artillery Row

The ghosts of Tory past

The Conservatives are haunted by the spirits of the last two decades

The date is July 17th, the occasion is the state of opening of Parliament, and the man is Nigel Farage — taking his seat in the Commons at the eighth attempt. What follows? 

First, the obvious. Farage will itch to be thrown out of it as soon as possible. Not permanently, of course, but temporarily: in other words, to be suspended by the Speaker for “telling it like it is” (or breaking the House’s rules and conventions, if you want a more formal explanation). 

For a key to his character, as the last few weeks have reminded us, is his compulsion for the spotlight. Politics is his game show. Parliament would be his jungle. I’m an MP — get me out of here. 

But, if elected, he will be a purple dot amidst an ocean of red and orange — with a dash of blue and tartan to make up the colours. So he will less be heckled, shouted down, and abused than snubbed, passed over and frozen out. 

Which is why he will have to shout to be noticed (not a gambit with which he’s unfamiliar). And for some of the time, of course, he won’t be there at all. 

The American presidential election beckons, as does its potential aftermath. Not so long ago, Farage and his fanbase floated sending him to Donald Trump’s America as Britain’s Ambassador. But what about the reverse deal? Not Farage as Britain’s emissary to Trump, but as Trump’s emissary to Britain! 

So much for the first few weeks and months. What then? 

Perhaps the following. If he’s elected, possibly with a small band of fellow Reform MPs, it will be mission accomplished: Farage will have helped substantially to reduce the Conservative numbers in Parliament, and established himself there as Britain’s leading right-wing politician. What’s the next mission? To smash the Tories entirely? That could mean waiting until the general election of 2028. To swallow them whole? That might be quicker. So how to do it? 

Farage could maximise the Conservatives’ turmoil by demanding membership at once. However, he might not be able to square his Reform colleagues in Parliament, if there are any, let alone much of his voter base outside. Not that he would necessarily care: for Farage, consistency is truly the hobgoblin of little minds (whether foolish or not). His motto when cornered is: just keep talking. 

But he has an easier way open to him — to make, say, five demands of the Tories, which would include the following: a formal merger, an election by the new party of a new leader, a mass membership drive, a new party chairman and new right-wing policies (for example, “all non-essential immigration frozen”, in the words of Reform’s manifesto). 

How would the Conservatives respond? Part of the membership base would love it. Much of the Parliamentary Party would loathe it. Now throw the inevitable Tory leadership election into the mix. 

We can’t know on June 21st which Conservative candidates will be elected on July 4th — and, therefore, which Tory MPs will stand for the leadership. Let alone which two are put by MPs to party members in the final stage of the contest. 

But Farage’s demands will be the talk of the town. Accept them, and you let the wolf into the chicken coop (and split your party in Parliament). Refuse them outright, and you alienate a large slice of the party membership — and perhaps lose the leadership election. 

Here’s a compromise. Come back at Farage with your own counter-offer, roughly as follows: “Nigel Farage opposed Conservative candidates at the general election. But I recognise the need to unite the right. However, any agreement with Reform must be built to last. So if I’m elected Conservative leader, I’m willing to have talks with Farage with a view to an agreement.” 

Then get elected. Have the talks. Ensure they break down. And carry on. What would Farage do then? 

He’s not incapable of the long march. After all, his political career has been a very long march indeed, from the village hall campaigning of the early 1990s to his Clacton candidacy over 30 years later. 

But Farage’s breakthroughs have been built on making an offer to voters at national elections — principally, European elections; plus general elections (and parliamentary by-elections). Waiting until 2029 would require, first, hogging the limelight for up to five years and, second, building up Reform as a real force in local government. Neither course offers easy pickings. 

The stonewalling of Farage by the next Conservative leader would also help to keep Boris Johnson at bay. The closer Farage gets to assimilating the Tories, the more Johnson will be tempted to return — as The Only Man Big Enough To Save The Conservatives From Farage. 

But seeking to come back means risking a by-election. And a contest that the Tories are guaranteed to win — let alone one with Johnson as their candidate — may not come along for some time. Cincinnatus may be at his plough for a while yet.  

I can already hear your objections to all this. Farage may not gain Clacton. Other Reform candidates may win elsewhere — Richard Tice in Boston and Skegness, for example. It’s even conceivable that a broken Conservative Party holds no leadership election at all, because only a single candidate declares. It doesn’t do to look too far ahead. 

But I think there is a point to the exercise. In Kipling’s “The Looking Glass”, the ageing Queen Elizabeth is haunted by the ghosts of her past — her sister, Queen Mary; her lover, Lord Leicester. Their spirits stand behind her chair and scratch upon her door. 

the Conservative Party is itself plagued by the ghosts of the past

Whether Farage wins or not; whether Johnson seeks to return or not; whether Liz Truss holds her Norfolk seat or not; whether Rishi Sunak keeps his in Yorkshire or not, the Conservative Party is itself plagued by the ghosts of the past. 

Come July 5th, they will upend the Tory household, knocking on windows, levitating furniture, fusing electrical devices. I suspect that the Conservatives won’t prosper again until they have all been exorcised, bell, book and candle. 

In the poem, the Queen can only expel the ghosts by facing herself in the mirror, and seeing herself as she truly is: “the cruel looking-glass that can always hurt a lass / More hard than any ghost there is or any man there was!”

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