Friend or foe? The Conservative Party misjudges Nigel Farage at its peril

Never happier than when embarked on an insurgency project, Nigel Farage appears particularly ‘chipper’ these days.

Talking to Sky News last week, the former Brexit Party and UKIP leader was his most explicit yet in stating that he wanted to see the Conservatives “replaced”.

Evoking the spirit of George Dangerfield, and his book, ‘The strange death of Liberal England’, Farage referenced a once in a hundred year eruption in which the UK’s party political structure could become realigned.

In an irony unlikely to be lost on Farage, he made his latest comments at the launch of Liz Truss’ so called ‘Popular Conservative’ movement.   Where this new Conservative Party grouping thought they had best prevent Simon Clarke MP from attending, given his recent public criticism of Rishi Sunak, they were nevertheless happy to have the greatest existential threat to their party’s future, in situ, and holding court.

So this begs the question, why do so many Conservatives remain blinded by Nigel Farage?

Admittedly in part, their confusion has been cultivated by Farage himself.

To date, the former Brexit Party leader has been somewhat reluctant to publicly throw himself to the forefront of Reform UK, the relatively new party of which he is the Honorary President.

Instead, as he works to loosen up some Conservative bricks, Farage has made jestful comments about becoming a future party leader, revelled in surveys showing how Conservative members would be happy to have him at the helm, and made a few smiley appearances on the sidelines of party events.

But it is a false trail.

To assume Nigel Farage is interested in joining the Conservative Party misreads Farage’s motivation and understanding of his strengths.  It ignores the destructive impact that Reform UK (of which Farage is at the very least, a silent assassin) is soon to have on a large number of Conservative MPs career prospects. And above all, it fails to appreciate how Farage’s recent overtures are just one small component in his wider vision for British politics in 2025 and beyond.

Farage the insurgent

Ever since he first stood as the UKIP candidate in the 1994 Eastleigh by-election, Nigel Farage has been an insurgent. That is what he is good at and what he enjoys.  Pleasure comes from doubling down on what he perceives as the establishment, not from signing up to its ranks.

Reform UK may currently be led by Farage’s friend, and golf watching companion, Richard Tice, but to its membership and voter base, Nigel very much remains the ‘Spiritual Leader’.   Even Tice appears happy to go along with the notion that he is just keeping the seat warm.

Through Reform UK, Farage has the potential to mould and control a burgeoning and likely compliant political movement in his own name.   Far from needing to appease the party’s broader church, inside Reform UK, there will be nothing pressuring Nigel to tone down his brand of populist politics.

This is the approach that suits Farage the man.  Clearly capable of a personal fall out, it is irrational to assume that Farage would allow his ego, let alone his practical room for manoeuvre, to become beholden to the irritations and restrictions of a Conservative Party establishment which he so despises.

Farage the brand

Moreover, whilst some in the Conservative Party feel they need Nigel Farage, Farage discerns he doesn’t need them.

Unusual for a political landscape where just a fraction of the electorate can name more than a handful of cabinet ministers, let alone shadow cabinet ministers, or even the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nigel Farage remains an omnipresent figure.

Just as brand awareness helps cleaning products and chocolate biscuits, it matters in politics too.  Brand recognition provides a seat at the table of popular discourse.  It maintains relevance, and to an extent, proffers credibility.

Many in the wider political community may despise ‘Brand Farage’ but they are wrong to pretend that its reach doesn’t matter.

Recognised by 95% of the electorate, Farage resides in the very highest echelons of consciousness. According to YouGov, Farage is even better known than ‘prime minister in waiting’, Sir Keir Starmer. Moreover, within the distinct right of centre third of the electorate in which Farage has the most interest, ‘Brand Farage’ continues to enjoy positive approval ratings.

Farage knows all this.

He also realises that only the ‘ultras’ tune in to his messaging on GB News.  Useful that his rumoured £1.5 million fee must have been, his three week long appearance on ITV’s prime time ‘I am Celebrity’ wasn’t driven by a desire to eat animal testicles.  Farage was there to top up brand exposure.

The independence and unorthodox nature of ‘Brand Farage’ is also what provides its strength.

Beset by their own cognitive fixedness, this is something that Farage’s Conservative Party sympathisers are too quick to overlook.  But Nigel Farage doesn’t.  He is not going to tarnish and dilute his prime asset by integrating it with their ailing proposition.

Farage, Reform UK, and the next election

Instead, those Conservatives spellbound by ‘Brand Farage’ would be better advised to consider the electoral damage that Reform UK is about to inflict on their own ranks.

Placing Conservative strategists in a seemingly irreconcilable pincer movement, Reform UK is already destabilising Conservative messaging.  When the party moves to sure up its right flank against a potential Farage insurgency, it risks alienating voters and MPs on its more moderate wing.  When they fail to do so, it simply reinforces the Reform UK narrative.

Although it is little known, as of February 2024, Reform UK has already selected 412 parliamentary candidates for this year’s general election.    Far in excess of any other political party, this number is not about securing a party political broadcast.  Where some Conservatives cling to the faint hope that Reform UK might stand down in their favour, the scale of the early selections looks far more like an independent party set on maximising its impact and establishing a voter base for the future.

None of these 412 Reform UK candidates will alarm the Labour Party or Liberal Democrats.   Indeed research from Oxford University has suggested that in 2019, the Brexit Party, the forerunner of Reform UK, actually enabled Labour to win some 25 more seats than it would have otherwise done.

Focussed on just one segment of the electorate, polling repeatedly shows how Reform UK’s voters are drawn from the Conservative pile, or from those that would otherwise simply stay at home. Indeed the evidence  suggests that more of the Conservative Party’s 2019 voters are actually defecting to Reform UK than they are to Labour.

In 2019, the Brexit Party’s decision to stand down from Conservative seats left the party immune from a ‘Faragist’ challenge.  In 2024 the opposite applies.  As Reform UK siphons off chunks of votes (potentially several thousands in many a seat), the party’s mere presence on the ballot will prevent a whole swathe of Conservative MPs from winning out in an otherwise close contest.

As Farage schmooses around Conservative events, presumably snacking on the canapés and sipping on their sparkling wine, musing as he did last week about a possible Conservative extinction, the very party of which he is President is doing everything it can to chivvy that process along.

Farage’s overall gamble….

With a background in commodity trading, and a penchant for stocks and shares, Nigel Farage is pinning his political future on an outside bet – albeit one that is narrowing.

The Farage long shot involves a 2024 Conservative electoral disaster that goes far below the 165 seats won by John Major in 1997, or the 202 secured by Jeremy Corbyn in 2019.  Although the capitulation needn’t stretch as far as Labour’s 2015 Scottish demolition, or the total eradication experienced by the governing Canadian Conservatives back in 1993, it would at least need to equate to the 127 seat level where Conservative polling has been glued for a year or more.

In the Farage playbook, the defeat needs to be so great that it undermines confidence about there being any possibility of a medium term Conservative revival.

As the party then becomes beset by more internal wrangling, hampered by an unknown leader, and faced with ongoing questions as to whether it can ever effectively engage with voters under the age of fifty, Farage realises that the Conservative Party’s downward polling trajectory isn’t going to abate.  Britain’s most successful political party will start to forego its monopoly of credibility as the effective force on the right of politics.

On the other side, confronted with the challenges of fiscal constraints, a new prime minister struggling with personal popularity, internal policy revolts, and the pent up weight of expectations, a future Labour government won’t be having it easy either.

In this Faragist playbook, these post election years will present the perfect storm for his populist brand of politics.

This isn’t simply the Trump experience.   Reform UK will have noticed the parallel in Germany. In late 2021 when Olaf Scholz’s left of centre government took office after sixteen years of Conservative hegemony, the populist Alternative für Deutschland Party (AfD) was polling the same 10% now experienced by Reform UK.  Roll forward two years and AfD is entrenched in second place at over 20%.

In the midst of this landscape, Farage’s interests will be suited by whipping the Conservative Party, not by joining up with them.   The party will remain his point of difference, evidence of the very establishment that his Reform UK is supposedly there to reform.    A struggling Conservative Party will sit as a lightning rod that exempts him from having to worry about their record in government.  Indeed, cooking well outside of the tent, the party’s record will become an opportunity not a burden for him.

For any opposition force, polling is the ‘currency of credibility’.

In these circumstances as it continues to grow, Reform UK will find it easier to undermine the Conservative Party from below.  Sensing the way that the tide is breaking, acolyte Conservative members and donors will become accomplices, and the first few MP defections (long cultivated) will start to provide Reform UK with the fledging foothold it needs in the House of Commons.

Should the polling hold, expect that initial trickle to morph into a ‘Liv Golf’ style steady flow.  In an age where an SNP MP (Lisa Cameron) has just crossed the floor to the Conservatives, and where a former Labour MP is currently contesting the Rochdale by-election for Reform UK, Farage knows that disillusion and personal ambition can easily trump party discipline.

As by-elections start to appear, Farage will be confident that Reform UK will win a number of them. The First Past the Post System, historically so reviled by Farage himself, will now dovetail with a crowded political landscape to make that happen.  As a now defensive Labour government, a vanquished Conservative party, and a slightly resurgent Liberal Democrats (as per last time Labour was in power) all slug it out, Reform UK will only need the support of a third of voters to emerge victorious.   Whilst Reform UK’s base may still be restricted to only a portion of the 52% of the electorate that backed Brexit, Farage realises that this is all it needs.

At this stage, we will depart from how the Farage fantasy might then unfold.

However it exactly pans out, the most likely impact of Reform UK will be to divide and damage the right of British politics for a generation, providing the political left with the free run that their opponents have often historically enjoyed.

Yet people are naïve to underestimate Nigel Farage, and to assume that this canny operator has somehow given up on front line politics.

Not yet sixty, Farage is a proven political strategist, as well as a smart communicator.   Despite never being an MP, he has already secured more references in the British history books of the early 21st century than all but a handful of his political contemporaries.

And right now, Nigel Farage believes he holds the cards.

After 32 years of exile, there is nothing within the Farage playbook that aligns with him riding to the Conservative party’s rescue.    As they fail to confront Reform UK, scared of both legitimising the new party and alienating their own members, Farage already has the Conservatives firmly on the run.

Should the required scale of an electoral implosion come to fruition, aided at the margins by the activities of Reform UK itself, Farage can see that this is a card deck that will just keep on giving.

Conservatives might think Nigel Farage is their ideological friend.

In practice, he is the party’s ultimate foe.