Farage and the Future of the UK Conservative Party

At first, Nigel Farage kept his cool, ignoring protesters when they disrupted his victory speech as the veteran British political subversive, anti-immigration activist and ally of former President Donald J. Trump.

But as chaos ensued at Friday’s press conference, Mr Farage began a barrage of hecklers, drowning out his critics by shouting “It’s boring!” nine times into the microphone.

But with Farage around, things are rarely boring – as Britain’s centre-right Conservative party is only just finding out.

Labour’s landslide victory ousted the Conservatives from power after 14 years in their worst defeat in modern history, a shocking defeat that has left the party’s remnants in disarray. By contrast, Mr Farage’s tiny rebel party, Reform UK, is thriving, putting him at the centre of defining the future of British right-wing politics, and perhaps the country as a whole.

His presence on the political stage and his harsh anti-immigration rhetoric could have a significant impact on the course of the Conservative party, whose leader, former chancellor Rishi Sunak, said on Friday he would stand down once a successor is chosen.

Not only did Reform candidates win five seats, including Farage, but they were elected for the first time after eight attempts. The party also won about 14% of the vote nationwide. By this measure, Reform is the third most successful party in Britain, and is compared to France’s fast-growing right-wing Rally National.

“The Reform Party is laying the foundations for a serious challenge not just to the Conservatives but also to Keir Starmer and the Labour Party,” Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent, said of Britain’s new Labour prime minister. “The question is whether Nigel Farage can establish the organisational and party structure and professional running that will enable him to achieve what previous parties have struggled to do.”

Mr Farage, 60, is a bombastic, pugnacious and charismatic figure who has long been a thorn in the side of the Conservative party, from which he left in 1992. During that time, he and his allies have often been ignored or mocked. He once described supporters of his then-leaning UK Independence Party (UKIP) as “a racist, arrogant and timid man.”Weirdo, weirdo, closet racist.”

But pressure from UKIP forced Cameron to promise a referendum on leaving the EU, which he lost in 2016, ending his term as prime minister.

Farage recently retired from politics, only deciding at the last minute to stand in the general election, but his influence has been striking and his anti-immigration campaign has rubbed off on the Conservative party, whose government has tripled legal immigration since Britain left the European Union.

“He has a people’s sensibility,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “He’s a consummate political communicator and has a charisma that many mainstream politicians have a hard time matching (because they have to deal with real problems, not fictitious ones).”

Some right-wing Conservatives want Mr Farage back in the party, but others worry he will alienate moderate voters.

He suggests the Reform Party could replace the Conservatives or even take over the party.

But even if he does neither, he has already proven the threat he poses.

In 2019, the Brexit Party, then led by Farage, opted not to field candidates to challenge many Conservative MPs, to avoid risking splitting the right-wing vote and helping former prime minister Boris Johnson win a landslide victory.

Last week, Mr Farage’s party campaigned across the country, costing the Conservatives dozens of seats, and Prof Goodwin calculated that in around 180 constituencies the Reform Party vote was greater than the Conservative margin of defeat.

“The Conservative party has problems on multiple fronts,” Prof Goodwin said, noting that it had lost votes to Labour and the centre-right Liberal Democrats, “but Farage is the biggest problem facing the Conservative party.”

The party now faces crucial decisions about who should lead it and what political form it should take.

One faction wants a shift to the right to counter reformists who have eaten into Conservative votes in pro-Brexit northern and midland areas in the general election, easing the way for Labour to win. Prof Goodwin argues that since Brexit, Conservative support has become more concentrated among socially conservative and Europe-hostile voters.

But the Conservatives also lost votes to Labour and to the smaller, pro-European, centrist Liberal Democrats, who won 72 seats by concentrating their campaign in Conservative heartlands in the socially liberal south of England.

“The Conservatives lost this election on two fronts but they seem to care much more about one side than the other,” said Prof Bale. The Conservatives appear to be blaming the Reform Party for their defeat but are ignoring the fact that right-wing policies promised to counter the threat of Mr Farage have cost them votes from the political centre, he said.

The ultimate choice of who will lead the Conservative party will be made by party members who tend to be older and more right-leaning than the average Briton. “It is hard to imagine a more moderate Conservative member being chosen by a party that is neither ideologically nor demographically representative of the average voter,” Prof Bale said.

Complicating things for moderates was the fact that senior cabinet minister Penny Mordaunt lost her seat in the election and dropped out of the race, narrowing the field of credible candidates.

This has strengthened the prospects of right-wing candidates including former Home Secretary Priti Patel, former Business and Trade Secretary Kemi Badenoch and former Home Secretary Suella Braverman, whose comments echo some of those of Mr Farage, describing asylum seekers arriving in boats on England’s southern coast as an “invasion”.

Some Conservatives hope that the scandal-prone but charismatic Mr Johnson – who did not stand for election – will eventually return to fight the reformist threat.

Braverman is the candidate most willing to invite Farage into the Conservative party, but analysts say he is unlikely to become leader: Many of his rivals are wary of Farage and may feel he is well placed to overtake them.

“You’re not going to see a Conservative party with Farage involved anytime soon – he doesn’t believe in the Conservative party,” Prof Goodwin said.

“I just can’t see how the Conservative party as we know it is fit for purpose in any sense. Brexit has highlighted the division between two very clear factions,” Farage told The New York Times before the election. Asked if he could rejoin the Conservative party, Farage said: “That’s unlikely to happen.”

Assuming that’s correct, a lot will depend on whether he can transform Reform UK, an upstart party with only a skeletal infrastructure, into a challenging force in the next general election, which must be held by 2029.

Whether he can do so is by no means certain: Reform performed significantly worse than UKIP in the local council elections, showing its fragmented activist base and proving it to be what Prof Bale calls “an astroturf party rather than a grassroots party”.

Racist and homophobic comments made by some reform activists and candidates have sparked outrage and highlighted how difficult it is to vet key supporters.

And Mr Farage, the leader of the Reform Party, has struggled to hand over power and share the attention and has been known to bicker with colleagues.

“Farage clearly finds it very difficult to accept any dissent or alternative that anyone else puts forward for the party,” Prof Bale said.

“He’s the ultimate one-man band.”

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