Last March Nigel Farage announced that he was resigning as leader of his Reform UK party and quitting politics for good. “There’s no going back – Brexit is done,” he declared. “I know I’ve come back once or twice when people thought I’d gone, but this is it. It’s done. It’s over.”
That was then. Today, the man who has made more comebacks than Paul Gascoigne is hinting at yet another, this one prompted by disillusion with Boris Johnson’s government.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph on 7 January, Farage claimed that “a revolt on the right is brewing” and continued: “I intend to increase the help that I’m giving to Richard Tice [his successor as Reform UK’s leader]. Brexit has not been completed properly. The net zero strategy is placing our nation at a significant disadvantage. And the Channel crossings are humiliating Britain.”
That same evening, on BBC Radio 4’s Any Questions?, Farage declared: “Boris Johnson was the right leader for 2019 to get us over that hurdle [leaving the EU]. It now needs someone else to take it [Brexit] on so we can take full advantage.”
Perhaps the charms of working for GB News, or recording personalised birthday messages for Cameo at £75 a shot, are wearing thin. Perhaps the law of diminishing returns will kick in, and Farage will find his popular appeal diminished now that Britain has left the European Union. But there again, perhaps not.
This is the man who built the UK Independence Party into such a force that David Cameron was forced to call the Brexit referendum in 2016. Who, as the public face of the unofficial Leave.EU campaign, did as much as Johnson to deliver the blue collar vote by focusing relentlessly on immigration. Who helped Johnson win his “stonking” majority in the 2019 general election by running no Brexit Party candidates against incumbent Tory MPs. And who has, for good measure, 1.6 million Twitter followers.
Farage is the one populist who can outdo Johnson. He is shameless, a gifted communicator and possesses the common touch in spades. He is brilliant at exploiting discontent, and discontent with Johnson is now rife.
The Prime Minister’s approval ratings are rock bottom. He is fast losing the support of the formerly sycophantic Tory press. He is beset by scandals and charges of incompetence. Taxes are rising, fuel prices and inflation surging.
Conservative Brexiteer zealots who wanted post-Brexit Britain to become a low-tax, deregulated Singapore-on-Thames are dismayed by his lurch towards high-spending, interventionist government. Blue-collar voters in the Tories’ new Red Wall constituencies in the north and Midlands are equally dismayed by his lack of progress on “levelling up”.
The Prime Minister “needs to remember what will decide people’s votes when election day next comes”, Ben Houchen, the Conservative Mayor of Tees Valley, warned in the Times on Monday (10 January). Red Wall voters will be “looking for proof that they were right to back him and this government to deliver a better life for them and their families… They’ll punish a government that makes them regret their choices.”
Farage is well-placed to exploit this widespread disgruntlement with what he called in his Telegraph column “a metropolitan Tory chumocracy totally detached from the rest of the country”, and the Conservatives have good reason to fear his return to the political fray.
His Reform UK party presently enjoys roughly 4 per cent support in the opinion polls under Richard Tice’s underwhelming leadership. If he can boost that support by just a few more points Reform UK could split the right-wing vote enough to jeopardise a substantial number of Tory seats at the next election. No fewer than 28 Conservative MPs were returned with majorities of less than 2,000 votes in 2019.
That sounds like good news for Labour and the Liberal Democrats, but there could be a big downside too.
To negate the threat from a resurgent Reform UK, the Conservatives need to protect their right flank, and that means changing what David Frost, the former Brexit minister, calls the government’s “direction of travel”.
It means invoking Article 16 rather than compromising on its demands that the Northern Ireland protocol be scrapped, thereby risking a full-blown trade war with the EU. It means back-pedalling on the government’s “net zero” strategy for countering climate change. It means scrapping all remaining Covid restrictions, prioritising tax cuts over spending, draconian measures to repel asylum seekers, intensified culture wars, ever more jingoism dressed up as patriotism, and much more besides.
It would also boost the chances of the Conservatives choosing the hard-line Liz Truss over the relatively mainstream Rishi Sunak if they are clobbered in May’s local elections and decide to jettison Johnson.
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last Saturday (8 January), Nick Robinson rightly observed of Farage: “The truth is he’s an electoral serial loser. He loses everything. But he’s one of the biggest political winners of my lifetime. He knows how to shift the Tory party in the direction he wants to shift it even though he’s outside.”
This perpetual gadfly, this serial troublemaker, forced Cameron to call a referendum on the UK’s EU membership for which there was no clamour at all outside the right wing of the Conservative Party, and Britain will be paying the price for generations.
[See also: Boris Johnson’s last chance]