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25 June 2024updated 28 Jun 2024 10:42am

Nigel Farage’s Tory takeover is in peril

Conservative leadership contenders are signalling that the door will not be open to the Reform leader.

By David Gauke

From a moderate, centre-right perspective, trying to find something to be optimistic and positive about during this general election campaign has not been easy. The Conservative Party – the traditional vehicle for mainstream, centre-right values – appears to be imploding. Many of the best Tory MPs are standing down; many others will lose their seats. The Liberal Democrats are sweeping the Home Counties thanks to their anti-Tory positioning and Ed (“I’m mad, me!”) Davey’s geniality. Labour looks set to dominate British politics for a decade.

One might feel a sense of vindication that the right’s capture of the Conservative Party has ended in disaster. Brexit, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have wrecked the party’s reputation for competence and honesty. But that is not likely to be the lesson the Tories learn. The blame will be placed on Rishi Sunak, high taxes and immigration, and a hapless campaign.

The rise of Reform, and Nigel Farage’s likely victory in Clacton, will strengthen the hand of those who want a shift to the right. The prevailing argument will be that the political priority for whatever is left of the Tory party is to protect its right flank.

Neither a good Reform performance, nor the probable Conservative reaction, is a cheery prospect. Certainly not for those of us on the moderate centre right but, I would argue, for the country generally. A credible opposition is in the national interest.

My assumption has long been that the defining question of the next Conservative leadership election will be whether the candidates are prepared to reach an accommodation with Farage, with a candidate favouring this being well-placed to win among the party membership. At which point, Farage could capture the Tories and – precisely as intended – emerge as the undisputed leader of the English right at the 2029 general election.

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The final part of the Farage plan is that he then goes on to win that general election. If Labour achieves a landslide, as looks very likely, one might think that a Farage victory is unthinkable. But what a volatile electorate giveth a volatile electorate may taketh away. It is therefore possible that by 2029 the country might just be desperate for an alternative to Labour with only a hard-right populist party on offer. It is a depressing prospect.

In recent days, however, two factors have emerged that raise doubts about this scenario. The first is that putative Tory leadership candidates are indicating that the door will not be open to Farage. Kemi Badenoch was always likely to be a Farage-sceptic; James Cleverly too (and he has left no one in doubt). Perhaps more surprising are reports that Priti Patel has said Farage will not be welcome in the party.

Patel has a strong chance of winning the party leadership and is on good personal terms with Farage but still says no. Why? Perhaps she perceives that there will be too much Tory bitterness at the damage he is going to inflict on the party. It could be that Patel considers the support of Johnson more important (the former prime minister has obviously concluded that the Conservative Party is not big enough for the both of them). It might just be that Patel recognises that were she to win the Tory leadership, it would only be a matter of time before Farage supplanted her. Understandably, she does not want to be “Ticed”.

The second reason for optimism is that Farage has confirmed that – though a brilliant campaigner – he is not well-suited to leading a broader party of the right. There has been his refusal to disavow a large number of candidates holding deeply unpleasant views (“fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” to coin a phrase) but, more significantly, the exposure of his views on the war in Ukraine.

That Farage holds the West responsible for Russia’s invasion should not come as a surprise to anyone (and he has spent the last few days digging a deeper hole). His West-blaming is driven by a loathing of the EU, an admiration for strongmen and an isolationism that is widespread in the US but very much at the fringes of UK public opinion. It is certainly not the view of most Conservatives.

Sadly, this will not result in the collapse of the Reform vote by 4 July but there are two lessons that the Tories should take from this. First, Farage is not fit to be a part of – let alone lead – a mainstream, centre-right party. Second, a mainstream, centre-right party should have the courage to call him out. Not to merely argue that he splits the right vote but that he is wrong. Start with Ukraine but also his economic agenda of reheated Trussism.

As usual, Sunak has been too timid to take Farage on as robustly as he should, but in the post-election debate about the future of the party, Farage’s opponents can take encouragement: this is a fight that can be won.

Maybe – just maybe – this past week was the moment when Farage’s attempt to become the undisputed leader of the right in the UK faltered. If so, there is some good news for centrist Conservatives after all.

[See also: How the Tory party campaign came apart]

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