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  1. Election 2024
11 June 2024

Inside the Tory war over Nigel Farage

As the Tories gather for their manifesto launch, the spectre of Reform is haunting them.

By Rachel Cunliffe

It’s deja vu time, as the Tories once again descend into an internal debate over whether Nigel Farage is an existential risk to their party – or its potential saviour.

The threat of Reform has increased significantly since Farage unexpectedly announced last week that he was standing as a candidate in Clacton-on-Sea and resuming his leadership of the party he founded. One Redfield and Wilton poll now shows Reform leading among over-55s – the target demographic for the Conservative’s “core vote” strategy; another has the insurgent right-wing party ahead of the Tories in 40 key “Red Wall” seats.

It is now only a matter of time before Reform, currently on 13 per cent on the BBC’s poll tracker, achieves “crossover” with the Conservatives in some polls. It isn’t surprising, then, that there has been a reprisal of panicked suggestions from some Tories that Farage could rejoin the party (he left in 1992 over its support for the Maastricht Treaty).

The last time this happened it ended in humiliation for the Tories. Farage spent three days swanning around the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last October, in his capacity as a GB News presenter, with a crowd of enthusiastic fans surrounding him at all times (he had aptly topped the New Statesman’s Right Power List the week before). He teased the Conservatives, telling the BBC’s Nick Robinson that he could be more involved with the party “if it went in the direction he wanted.” At the time Rishi Sunak was pressed to acknowledge that Farage would be welcomed back to the Tories if he wished to rejoin; a number of Conservatives speculated that he might one day lead the party; the standout clip of the conference was the Brexit Party founder dancing with Priti Patel to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”.

…And then Farage trashed the conference – and the Conservative Party – by saying he’d never consider rejoining while the Tories had “no answer” on immigration.

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Once bitten, twice shy: some Conservatives are being more cautious this time around. Kemi Badenoch – who remains one of the key frontrunners to take over whatever is left of the Tory party after the election – dismissed Farage last week, saying “he wants to do is destroy the Conservative Party.” (Indeed, former leader Richard Tice freely admitted much the same thing when I spoke to him just after the October conference.)

But others are still toying with the Farage option – while some are positively embracing it. Suella Braverman, who still harbours her own (dwindling) leadership ambitions, issued a rallying cry yesterday for the Tories to “welcome” Farage and “unite the right”.

Farage repaid her with the snub that “all marriage plans are off”, suggesting she join Reform instead, which probably wasn’t what the former home secretary wanted to hear.

Nonetheless, the Reform question is terrorising the Tories. When I canvassed MPs and strategists before the local elections, some downplayed the new party’s prospects of winning council or constituency seats, but all acknowledged the wider risk it poses. The Conservative Party, one told me, has always enjoyed an “institutional advantage” in British politics, in that the right was united while the left was fractured between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and regional parties. Reform challenged that advantage: “The Conservative Party could get everything right, but if Reform is still somehow out there, it doesn’t matter.” The Tories would have no prospect at all of recovery, they argued, until they found a way to either destroy Reform or merge with it and unite the right, to use Braverman’s words.

At present, a merger would cause more problems than it would solve. Reform is a fringe party full of fringe ideas (the “net zero” approach to immigration Tice cited to me, for instance).One of the party’s candidates has claimed the UK should have “taken Hitler up on his offer of neutrality”, praised Vladimir Putin, and urged people to “exorcise the cult of Churchill”; its candidate in the Rochdale by-election was a former Labour MP suspended from the party for sending sexually explicit messages to a 17-year-old. It appears highly unlikely to win any seats in the general election other than Farage in Clacton-on-Sea. Depending on how badly the Conservatives do, that sets up a post-election negotiation between a party with 50-200 MPs, and a party that might possibly have one.

And yet, as the Tories gather in Northamptonshire today for the unveiling of the Conservative manifesto, the spectre of Farage will be haunting them. Any grand gestures they make – particularly ones targeted at their base on issues such as immigration and tax – will be rubbished from the outset and be outdone when Reform announces its own policies next week. The Conservative Party is not used to fighting on both its left and right flanks – for most of its long-established history, it hasn’t had to. Reform doesn’t have to win a slate of seats to prove catastrophic to the Tories. Panic is setting in and talk of a merger will only increase up to and beyond polling day.

But those looking to negotiate should be wary. When asked about the prospect of a merger, Farage replied “more like a takeover”.

[See also: The Conservatives have become a zombie party]

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