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3 October 2023

Nigel Farage is the real star of the Tory conference

The former Ukip leader may be right to think the Conservatives will follow where he leads.

By Rachel Cunliffe

This year’s Conservative Party conference has been widely described as a wake – and it is certainly full of ghosts. Theresa May has been decrying the watering down of measures to reach the UK’s ambitious net-zero targets (which her government passed into law). Liz Truss has led a rally in support of tax cuts and pro-growth reforms (which she attempted to implement during her short stint as PM). And the ghost of HS2 has been in Manchester since it was first rumoured the rail line would never get here.

But one figure from the recent political past appears to have been resurrected and is stronger than ever: Nigel Farage.

In the latest edition of the New Statesman we put Farage top of our Right Power List. We believed him to be the most influential person shaping Britain’s conservative politics, above even the Prime Minister.

“Brexit alone gives the former Ukip leader a legacy that few postwar politicians can rival… But Farage’s influence extends far beyond Brexit,” we wrote. “[Rishi] Sunak has embraced Farage’s policy agenda. When the latter first reported for GB News in 2021 from the English Channel on migrant crossings, he was widely ridiculed. But Sunak has since made ‘stopping small boats’ one of his five priorities, while Starmer has similarly vowed to take action… It was Farage who last year demanded a referendum on the UK’s net zero target. While it is Sunak who is in office, it is Nigel Farage who, in numerous ways, is in power.”

Farage seems to be in power in Manchester this week too. Here in his capacity as a GB News presenter rather than a member, a man who has not been affiliated with the Conservative Party for 30 years is one of its conference’s star attractions.

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As to why he is suddenly so popular with a party he isn’t part of, Farage’s answer to Nick Robinson on BBC Radio 4’s Today this morning was that he has been “very consistent” in his views on borders, net zero and low taxes, but “what’s interesting is there’s now a wing of the Conservative Party that has woken up to these things”.

That wing formed the core audience of the Liz Truss growth rally, which Farage turned up to, drawing his own crowd just as enthusiastic as those who showed up for the former prime minister. (Indeed, their supporters overlapped significantly.) GB News itself was applauded multiple times despite its recent controversies. The influence of the channel over Conservative politics is undeniable, and explains how someone who has failed seven times to be elected as an MP can hold such political sway.

“You think in your role as a broadcaster, you’re reshaping the nature of the political debate on the right in Britain?” Robinson asked Farage. “I think so – and I think perhaps more effectively than I could do standing for election,” he replied. Farage also hinted that he could be more involved in the party “if it went in the direction he wanted”, pointing out his appeal among delegates. Indeed, numerous activists I have spoken to have wistfully suggested he should be the next Tory leader.

If that proves just a bit too outlandish (Farage would have to stand and win as a Conservative MP first – which is highly unlikely), he will certainly play a role in shaping the debate around Sunak’s successor. Never a king, but perhaps a kingmaker – and the Conservatives here know it. On Monday night Farage was filmed singing and dancing to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with Priti Patel. If a single moment could sum up the spirit of the Tory party conference this year, this was it.

[See also: Rishi Sunak is dancing to Nigel Farage’s tune]

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