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6 January 2021updated 09 Sep 2021 11:10am

Nigel Farage’s new Reform UK party is unlikely to succeed – but his next one might

The former Ukip leader is a poor frontman for lockdown scepticism, but his opponents have reason to be worried by his return to politics.

By Stephen Bush

Nigel Farage will re-enter British politics: renaming the Brexit Party as “Reform UK” and running against any lockdown restrictions in this year’s local elections, whether they are held in May or, as may be more likely, in June.

In reality, the Brexit Party was, of course, Ukip 2.0, stripped of its internal democracy and other internal factors, which Farage’s close allies had blamed for many of that party’s near-misses. The Brexit Party was significantly more successful than Ukip; although its areas of strength and its areas of weakness were broadly the same as Ukip’s, it did a better job of breaking out of them, probably because the party didn’t find itself blown off course by the inflammatory remarks of its party members (because it didn’t have any) or its candidates (because they were handpicked by the leadership to avoid a repeat of this). Will Reform UK be similarly successful?

In the spirit that you should put your analyses down in writing so you can’t back out of them later, here are mine.

The known unknown is the extent to which Reform UK is treated as the successor to the Brexit Party by the broadcasters, particularly the BBC, in the run-up to the elections. The amount of airtime a party receives is, in part, set by its performances in previous elections, and the Brexit Party can point to its successful showing in the 2019 European elections and its significantly less successful showing in the 2019 general election.

[see also: UK voters might regret Brexit but they don’t want to reverse it]

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But while the Brexit Party and Reform UK are legally the same entity, it is, to be blunt, unclear whether there is much, if any, read-across from the average supporter of the Brexit Party to the average opponent of lockdown. If I successfully won control of Reform UK in a card game from Farage and rebranded it the “Ban Private Cars From Cities by 2030” party, would I be entitled to receive the same level of media coverage I would receive had I fought and won the European elections myself? I am dubious that I would be, but if you are a BBC producer craving the attention and controversy that Farage brings, then you’ve certainly got a good excuse to give him more coverage than, say, the Green Party or the Liberal Democrats.

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More importantly, it is an excuse to give more airtime to Farage’s party than some of its genuine competitors – particularly the Abolish the Assembly Party, which has attracted the defections of two former Ukip members of the Welsh parliament and which, if the polls are right, has a similar support base to that of the Brexit Party and Ukip. If Farage is going to get any of his candidates elected in meaningful numbers, it will be via the proportional component of the Welsh parliamentary elections, and the first path to that is cannibalising and defeating the other Farage-ist parties: not only what remains of Ukip, but also Abolish.

The problem for Farage is that his old electoral coalition does not map cleanly on to his new issue: opposition to lockdown regulations. It doesn’t really matter that large majorities of the British public continue to support lockdown and, based on the country’s mobility data and anecdotal accounts, observance of lockdown remains high. Farage’s success has never been in winning enough votes to govern or even to reliably win seats outside of proportional elections, but in taking enough votes to scare the major parties towards him. If he can make his party the natural home for opponents of lockdown, he will get more than enough votes to achieve this. 

[see also: Why Boris Johnson’s Tories will want to keep immigration in the spotlight​]

But it does matter that, if the polls are right (and my sketchy anecdotal impression is that they are), then lockdown opposition is strongest among young and socially liberal voters. It is strongest among voters who are both of those as well as right wing, but even those voters are very far from Farage’s natural target audience.

I can’t see how a Farage-led anti-lockdown party is going to do all that well – there just isn’t enough overlap between his voters and opponents of lockdown. It’s just that all the anti-lockdown voters willing to contemplate backing Farage are well represented in the British commentariat and right-wing press.

But what would worry me if I were in Boris Johnson’s shoes, and to a lesser extent Keir Starmer’s, is that Farage’s return to the fray shows that he is not going to be content to simply sit on the sidelines and bask in Brexit. He is looking for new ways to involve himself in politics, and if opposing lockdown isn’t the cause that works for him, he is likely to find another, more effective, vehicle by the time of the next general election.