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  1. Politics
28 June 2024

Boris Johnson should take the fight to Nigel Farage

By campaigning in Clacton, the former PM could ensure his rival is defeated and clear the way for a comeback.

By David Gauke

Regular readers of these columns will know that I am not a fan of Boris Johnson. He lacks any respect for the truth. He has few political principles. He was a hopeless administrator, resulting in his government being incoherent and directionless. He – more than any other Conservative – is responsible for Brexit. And by and large, he puts his own interests over any other consideration. Much of the responsibility for the current state of the Tory party is down to him.

He does, however, have two attributes that can be viewed positively. The first is that he has consistently been a strong ally to Ukraine. He recognised that Vladimir Putin posed a threat not just to that country but to the entirety of the West. In contrast to much else he did as prime minister, on Ukraine he offered leadership.

Second, Johnson does have an ability to connect with a section of the electorate. I want to be precise. After partygate, he is widely disliked and distrusted by the electorate as a whole. No doubt, post-election, there will be calls for him to return to save the Tories. This would be a huge mistake. But there is a section of the population where he still may have some appeal. Older, non-degree-holding Leave voters may still have a soft spot for him. The type of voter that you might find in a town like Clacton.

This is why Johnson has an opportunity to do his party and even his country some service. With less than a week to go until polling day, Johnson should make his way to the Essex constituency and campaign for the Conservative candidate, Giles Watling, against his challenger, Nigel Farage (interviewed in this week’s New Statesman).

Johnson has already condemned Farage’s approach to Ukraine as “parroting Putin’s lies” and “morally repugnant”. But imagine the scene as Johnson went walkabout in the town centre, bringing his own version of celebrity politics to the constituency, glad-handing voters, bantering with market traders, flirting with old dears, dodging banana milkshakes. It would be just like old times.

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There was a time when it was just about possible to imagine Farage and Johnson co-existing in the same party but that time has passed. If Johnson has any hope of a political comeback (and the nature of the man is that he will still dream of that day), Farage has to be defeated. The MRP polls show Farage winning in Clacton but some of them not by much. Labour has pulled out of the seat and Watling is a likeable and conscientious constituency MP. An intervention by Johnson might just be enough to make all the difference and, if Farage lost, there would be no coming back from an eighth parliamentary defeat. Johnson would (and typing the following words does not come easily) deserve much credit.

There is, I accept, a case for caution from Johnson’s perspective. Perhaps the people of Clacton would not take kindly to him. There is a better than even chance that Farage will win on Thursday and Johnson will look like the vanquished party. Better to live to fight another day, he might think.

But it would be an unheroic calculation. Surely there is a case for boldness, for smiting the Putin-appeasers off the political map, for demonstrating to the Tory party what they lost when removing him (wisely, in my view, but let us not return to that), for re-establishing himself as the colossus of the right. Come on, Boris, seize the moment, be the Great Man, and get yourself to Clacton!

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