Why Reform and Nigel Farage’s electoral insurgency has stalled

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In the months leading up to this election campaign, now fast approaching its terminus, Reform UK remained shrouded in political mystery. That is despite the party polling consistently in the double-digits since the start of 2024.

The speculation surrounding then-honorary president Nigel Farage’s ambitions stole focus away from other aspects of Reform’s operation. Meanwhile, the party’s perennial underperformance in by-elections and the local elections in May led many to doubt its headline opinion poll numbers.

What has occurred over the past five or so weeks therefore, has been the relatively rapid unravelling of the Reform mystery — mainly, it must be said, to the Conservative Party’s detriment. But also, in no insignificant part, to its own.

Earlier this month, having initially rejected the opportunity, Nigel Farage ruled himself into the election campaign as the MP candidate for Clacton. Running in the only seat UKIP ever won at a general election (2015), Farage has since attracted huge crowds at rallies across the country (with the notable exception of Scotland).

“Something is happening out there”, Farage utters incessantly. Today, that phrase — at once entirely unspecific (meaning it won’t elevate expectations) and immensely ominous — serves as Reform’s unofficial slogan.

Indeed, whatever Farage’s “something” is, it would seem of nightmarish proportions for the Conservative Party and its beleaguered leader, Rishi Sunak. Part of the prime minister’s rationale in calling a summer election was to seize on the still unanswered questions that surrounded Reform. But Farage’s shock comeback has seen Sunak — an inexperienced and, frankly, ineffective campaigner — forced to face one of the UK’s most battle-hardened, ruthless political operators. With the fate of the Conservative Party on the line, Sunak has still struggled to rise to the challenge.

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But Reform, cast as this race’s insurgent force, has faced its own difficulties. Last week, Reform activists campaigning in Clacton were filmed making racist and homophobic comments, with one referring to the prime minister using a racial slur. The Channel 4 News exposé came amid a flurry of stories chronicling the controversial candidates within Reform’s ranks — reports that have dogged the party throughout its campaign.

In total, The Spectator lists 29 Reform MP-hopefuls who have attracted controversy for public statements. Notably, Ian Gribbin, the party’s candidate in Bexhill and Battle, won national headlines after he was reported to have claimed Britain would be “far better” if it had “taken Hitler up on his offer of neutrality”. And just today, The Times reports that Reform’s candidate in Orkney and Shetland, Robert Smith, once suggested Nicola Sturgeon should be “shot”.

As a result, a second Reform candidate has now suspended her campaign and defected to the Conservatives. Georgie David, standing in West Ham and Beckton, said the “vast majority” of her fellow candidates are “racist, misogynistic and bigoted”. David follows in the footsteps of Reform’s candidate in Erewash, Liam Booth-Isherwood, who also cited “reports of widespread racism and sexism”.

Nigel Farage has confronted the myriad reports of controversial Reform candidates head-on by *checks notes* threatening to sue the party’s vetting firm, accusing it of a “stitch up”. (In recent days, Farage has deployed this exact same line — rehearsed straight from the populist playbook — in response to Channel 4’s investigation).

In the end, Reform’s candidate controversies are so instructive because they reopen the party’s central mystery: who/what is this organisation that could be about to burst into parliament and onto the political map? The apparent answer, suffice it to say, is doing little to improve Reform’s electoral palatability.

In fact, there is reason to believe the recurrent stories of controversial Reform candidates are taking a toll on the party’s prospects this election. According to YouGov’s “AI-powered news tracker” — a new polling tool to track the prominence of news stories — 9 per cent of the British public say they have heard the story of a Reform activist’s racist slurs more than any other in recent days. Perhaps expectedly then, polls are beginning to show that Reform’s insurgency is stalling.

Now, this won’t only be due to Reform’s candidate controversies. Nigel Farage’s views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in which he links NATO/EU expansion with the conflict in eastern Europe, may also have cut-through to voters. Likewise, it’s possible that the Conservative Party’s late-campaign focus on a Labour “super-majority” is winning back the odd Tory-Reform switcher — or at least denying Farage remaining undecideds.

Certainly, when taken together, these stories have sucked precious oxygen out of Reform’s campaign — forcing the Faragist insurgents to occupy defensive positions.

There’s an argument to say, however — for Farage and Reform’s sake — that this may be for the best. Given his party’s botched vetting process, Farage likely has very little idea who he is leading, like some populist Pied Piper, into parliament. Thinking of Reform’s long-term ambitions, therefore, would 18 MPs (as predicted by a recent Electoral Calculus poll) benefit the upstart party?

Since entering the race earlier this month, Farage has styled this election as a springboard for future success — setting expectations as Reform establishing a “bridgehead” in parliament. This, it should be stressed, is a bar none of Reform’s right-of-Conservative forebears effectively cleared; it means if Farage does enter parliament after the election as the MP Clacton, perhaps alongside Richard Tice and Lee Anderson as the Reform representatives for Boston and Skegness and Ashfield respectively, that would amount to a very real victory.

Certainly, this collective would be far easier to manage than an 18-strong caucus of cranks. In this scenario, the inevitable future controversies enkindled by some poorly-vetted odd-ball would only turn away sympathetic voters — not to mention potential Tory defectors. In short, the Reform project would struggle to survive an expectations-shattering advance this election.

So while “Peak Reform” might have passed this campaign, the party’s real power could be established once it gains its “bridgehead” in parliament, and with the subsequent professionalisation of party operations. Only then can Farage begin to actualise his, admittedly optimistic, ambition to run as prime minister in 2029.

As such, before Downing Street can beckon, Farage has some very real problems to come to terms with and, ultimately, fix. A proper candidate recruitment plan, in the wake of the party’s dramas this election, will be his foremost priority — the epitome of the professionalisation Reform requires.

Farage, in sum, needs to satisfactorily solve the Reform mystery before the investigations, exposés and press reports do so for him.

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