The poster boy of Brexit is back and baying for blood! Nigel Farage’s announcement of contesting polls on all 600 seats has rattled the ruling Conservative Party. After a thirteen-year stint in power, the jaded Tories are plagued by infighting and policy paralysis and are widely expected to lose the next election to Kier Starmer’s Labour Party. On one hand, Rishi Sunak, the third prime minister in a year, is trying to salvage things, but he too is feeling the heat: a prevailing cost of living crisis, a sluggish economy, and a general atmosphere of paralysis have shattered the reputation of the Tory government. As Kier Stamer eyes the door of No. 10, the real threat to the Tories’ electoral fortunes comes from the right: Nigel Farage’s reform party.
Nigel Farage came into national prominence for his tirades against the EU as an MEP for UKIP. He was instrumental in pressuring David Cameron to call for a referendum and was a key figure in the campaign. The unlikely troika of Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and George Galloway galvanised Leave voters culminating in the biggest political upset. The Leave campaign painted a rosy picture of a post-Brexit Britain. They promised more sovereignty: a stronger and fairer Britain, with power returning back to citizens long stifled and derided by the ‘Brussels elite’. Brexit was supposed to unleash Britain’s latent economic potential, cut red tape, and boost exports; it was to revitalise the moribund NHS and the school system. Importantly for the right, it was to allow Britain control of her borders. In an uncomfortable marriage, Nigel Farage let Boris Johnson take the baton of Brexit in the 2019 election. Under his slogan of ‘getting Brexit done’, the Tories crushed the Labour party.
Things have gone downhill ever since. The blows of the pandemic and the cost of living crisis battered Britain’s finances, even as the true scale of the damage caused by Brexit came to the fore. The ineptitude of Boris Johnson forced his reluctant party to oust him; the party has since looked directionless. The membership installed Liz Truss, flirting with the right wing, but her premiership, too, failed to take off: her calamitous mini-budget rattled the markets and plunged the economy into crisis. To avoid yet another lengthy public battle, the Tories avoided roping in their membership, as the MPs swiftly installed in Rishi Sunak. The Tory musical chairs destroyed the Tories’ reputation for seriousness and competence and exposed the civil war within the party (criticism usually levelled at Labour). And all this came at a particularly vulnerable time for Britain.
Unlike other nations, Britain’s economy never recovered from the pandemic. War on the continent has led to the comeback of inflation, with prices fast outpacing wages. The economic outlook has been dim, even as Rishi Sunak’s government has tried to mend the errors of his predecessors. Amid a dark winter, industrial unrest has been rampant with strikes and picketing lines; the NHS is on its death knell. The right wing of the Conservative Party has been lamenting about the government’s failure to tackle border crossings- their chief gripe. Such a political climate is ripe for the entry of Nigel Farage, a master disrupter.
The suave Rishi Sunak is an alien to his party’s membership, many of whom seeth with his role in the ouster of Boris Johnson. Many disregard the government he leads as truly conservative. The Tories’ dilemma of being a small state low taxes party clashes with their recent foray into big state conservatism: Rishi Sunak is a product of that dilemma. Unlike the affable Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak fails to strike a chord with the country. This renders the Tory coalition up for grabs. While Kier Starmer’s centrist Labour courts moderates, the party’s right-wing is being relentlessly poached by Nigel Farage’s Reform UK. According to Richard Tice, the head of Reform UK, the party’s membership exploded after Liz Truss’s ouster. Many Tories concede Farage’s uncanny ability to touch a charm voters with his plain speaking and political incorrectness.
The party currently polls at 9%, and that is without Farage. With Nigel Farage in the fray, it could mean electoral oblivion for the Tories: Labour will hold power with a handsome majority. Several incumbent Tories will lose their thin majorities, as their gains in the Red Wall and London evaporate. With a string of by-election losses in their southern fortress, every seat is up for grabs as the Tories flounder.
The clock is ticking and Rishi Sunak knows it. In his New Year’s address to the nation, he outlined five key fledges that we promised to deliver on this year. Not only does he have to helm the country through choppy waters, but he also has to lead his jaded party to a fifth successive election victory. Should he lose the local election in May, it could further embolden his detractors on the right. As they rightly say, a week is a long time in politics, but one thing is for certain: be it, Rishi or Stamer, Farage is having the last laugh.
the picture was taken by Erik. S. Lesser for EURACTIV.