How the return of Nigel Farage could lead to a Reform-Conservative crossover

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The return of Nigel Farage to frontline politics, announced at an “emergency press conference” yesterday afternoon, is radically reshaping the landscape of this election campaign.

Farage’s conference came in two parts: first, there was the lesser announcement that the former UKIP chieftain will be returning as Reform leader for a five-year term, replacing Richard Tice. The more significant revelation, the culmination of the conference’s rhetorical crescendo, was that Farage will be standing for parliament in the constituency of Clacton. It is no less than the most significant announcement of the election campaign so far — from whatever party.

Farage’s latter proclamation, while narrower in focus, is significant because of what it reveals about his political intent. The Brexit doyen knows that if Reform is to truly take over the Conservatives as the foremost party of the British right, he needs to be in Westminster: after seven failed launches, the commons is Farage’s final, most politically necessary, frontier.

That said, standing in Clacton is a genuine risk for Farage and his brand. The ex-Brexit Party chieftain has cultivated his political image in recent times as a political threat; for years Farage derived strength from the fog that engulfed his next steps: will he, won’t he return to frontline politics? Will he, won’t he join the Conservatives? Will he, won’t he destroy the Tories? The more politicos pondered, the more powerful Farage became. As such, in pronouncing so unambiguously on his plans, Farage has plenty to prove in Clacton — and a great deal to lose.

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But you wouldn’t bet against him. Clacton is the only seat UKIP ever won at a general election (2015) — a victory which came after Conservative defector Douglas Carswell first claimed the constituency in a 2014 by-election. Clacton’s electorate, therefore, has a record of voting for right-of-Conservative parties: the constituency’s voters have already crossed this pertinent rubicon. On top of this, Farage’s national profile is far greater than Carswell’s c. 2014/15.

This, needless to say, is a nightmare for Rishi Sunak. The prime minister was not even an MP when UKIP was at its electoral peak from 2014-2015; now Sunak — an inexperienced and, frankly, ineffective campaigner — must face one of the UK’s most battle-hardened, ruthless operators. Far savvier Conservative leaders have been outfoxed by Farage on the electoral battlefield; there is, in the end, little reason to believe Sunak will succeed where David Cameron and Theresa May failed. (Yes, given the state of the Conservative campaign, May can reasonably be viewed as shrewder than Sunak).

Worse still for the prime minister, in this latest conflict with Farage, there is more at stake than ever: no less than the fate of the Conservative Party.

In 2018, when Farage’s Brexit Party entered the political scene at the expense of May, Conservative MPs knew they possessed one final ace up their collective sleeve: Boris Johnson. (In any case, because of May’s 2017 snap poll, an election didn’t need to be called until 2022. The long-term future of the Tories seemed, even at this apparent nadir, safe enough). The same cannot be said of the Tories today.

As such, the Reform leader’s plan, outlined this morning, to conduct a Canada-style “reverse takeover” of the Conservatives cannot be dismissed outright. Speaking to ITV’s Good Morning Britain programme, Farage said of his party’s long-term prospects: “[In the 1990s] Reform did a reverse takeover of the Conservative Party, rebranded it and Stephen Harper — who was elected as a Reform MP — became the Canadian prime minister for 10 years.”

Farage is right to be inspired by this Canadian allegory. In the 1993 general election, the populist, right-wing Canadian Reform Party came from nowhere to win 52 seats in the country’s federal parliament. The routed Canadian Conservatives were left with just two seats.

In time, Reform and its successors merged with the Conservatives: creating a new populist, mainstream political party. As Farage noted this morning, Stephen Harper, the former Conservative PM, was first elected to the Canadian parliament in 1993 as a Reform representative. Perhaps this is the role Farage imagines for himself over the course of coming parliaments.

In the end, the Canadian Reform Party’s greatest impact was in changing the Conservative Party with which it merged — this is what Farage refers to as a “reverse takeover”.

Furthermore, in many crucial respects, the first step of Farage’s plot is closer to realisation than many Tories likely countenance: I refer to a “crossover” moment, which would see Reform leapfrog the Conservatives in the polls.

In an article in March, I argued that the return of Farage would fundamentally uproot our political assumptions: “[If Reform] outpolls the Conservative Partyeven once between now and a forthcoming general election, the political effect would be seismic — and, as far as Rishi Sunak is concerned, catastrophic. For any opposition force, polling is its ‘currency of credibility’; surpassing the Conservatives would bestow upon Reform, caveats notwithstanding, real legitimacy as a political force.”

What I did not consider, however, was that a polling “crossover” could take place during a general election campaign.

Strikingly, the dynamics of the current contest arguably make a Reform-Conservative crossover — in light of Farage’s return — even more likely. A general election acts to quicken the pace of politics: during a campaign, parties rise and fall — every hour can boast its own news cycle. In this way, Farage’s comeback is already radically reshaping the terms of the election; today, media coverage is firmly trained on the new Reform leader’s every move. Don’t expect that to change anytime soon.

We already have data that suggests Farage’s comeback — all else being equal — boosts Reform. A poll in January found that the return of Farage would increase Reform’s vote share by 3 points — from 11 per cent at the time to 14 per cent. Of course, such a poll cannot account for the secondary and tertiary effects of Farage’s return, including (but not limited to): further MP defections, high-profile media endorsements and, of course, a botched Conservative counter-attack.

Each of these potential developments would create its own political gravity, around which the media focus would orbit for hours, days — even weeks. The bottom line is this: Farage has far easier recourse to boost Reform’s ratings than Sunak has to quash them.

And what of the potential implications of a Reform-Conservative crossover? Well, if Reform does pass the Conservatives in the polls ahead of 4th July, the primary political outcome would be mass panic. Reverse Midas Sunak would feel duty-bound to respond; but no single policy announcement, such as a pledge on the ECHR, would rise to the occasion without the risk of making matters worse.

The politics of panic would also envelop the wider Tory party. Already today, right-wing Conservative candidate Marco Longhi has asked Farage directly: “Why target certain MPs who have a track record of Reform type politics?”. Longhi wants the Reform leader to stand down candidates in constituencies with right-wing Tories — it’s the sort of Conservative freelancing we should get used to with Farage looming large.

Above all, however, a Reform-Conservative crossover would be so dire for the Tories because of what it would symbolise: that British politics really could be following in the footsteps of Canada c.1993. If senior Conservatives start to take this eventuality seriously, nothing is off the table.

Ultimately then, Rishi Sunak is on the verge of a political cataclysm unlike anything Britain has ever seen. And Nigel Farage holds all the cards.

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