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Nigel Farage Has Reanimated British politics

Guess who’s back? Back again. Nigel’s back. Tell a friend.

Yes, having ruled out standing for Reform UK in Britain’s forthcoming elections, Nigel Farage has changed his mind. He will lead the right-wing populist party into the elections on July 4, and will become its parliamentary candidate for Clacton in Essex.

This has sounded the death knell for Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the Conservative Party. The Conservatives have dipped further in the polls and now face the prospect of an historic wipeout. Keir Starmer’s Labour Party looks set to dominate parliamentary politics, with Reform predicted to win several seats and enter parliament as dissenting populist outsiders.

Farage’s announcement has shaken up an election campaign that had congealed into declinist goo. Sunak and Starmer are both awkward and uninspiring—with awkward and uninspiring policies on offer. To watch Britain’s debate between the pair was to watch Britain dying in front of you. 

Farage, on the other hand, seethes with mischief and merriment. He uploaded a short video of himself out and about, grinning from ear to ear, with Eminem’s “Without Me” blaring in the background.

Now, one shouldn’t get swept up in the spectacle of it all. Why is Farage back? Less than two weeks ago, he was claiming that it was “not the right time” to stand. Oddly, part of his reasoning was the greater importance of the U.S. elections. “Important though the general election is,” he wrote, 

the contest in the United States of America on November 5 has huge global significance. A strong America as a close ally is vital for our peace and security. I intend to help with the grassroots campaign in the USA in any way I can.

This seemed a bit strange at the time. (Did a patriot like Farage not believe that the British elections had “huge global significance”?) His reversal seems strange. It’s tempting to wonder if the turnabout had something to do with a perceived decline in Donald Trump’s prospects after his conviction on May 30. 

One thing we can say with confidence is that Farage must have been convinced that the Conservatives were doomed. After being embarrassed in previous elections—when he failed to win a parliamentary seat—he would not have returned unless he felt like he was pushing on an open door. Autopsies of the Conservative campaign should not conclude that it was killed off by Farage. It was dying anyway, and he has just returned to dance on its grave.

Still, if Reform can enter parliament, that will transform politics on the right. Since 2016, and the success of the Leave campaign in the referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, Britain has been unlike its continental neighbors in not having a more radical right-wing alternative to the center-right mainstream. The Conservatives did a good job convincing voters that they represented that alternative, before delivering record immigration and economic decline.

Farage has swaggered into the election campaign with bold words about “net zero” immigration and economic growth. He has made a deliberate attempt to appeal to younger voters, who have been disaffected by the Conservatives’ gerontocratic tendencies. 

Now, the Conservatives will face a dilemma. Will they attempt to embrace the semi-mythical centre of British politics? Liberal Conservatives like Rory Stewart and David Gauke have spent years arguing that the Tories that tacked too far to the right—an argument that has always depended on a fixation with their words and not their deeds. It’s hard to imagine this being successful. What difference would there be between the Conservatives and Labour?

Then again, there would be risks to competing with Reform. As the outsiders, with less at stake institutionally, Reform will have no problem outflanking the Conservatives on the right. This could have the very healthy effect of broadening Britain’s Overton Window—making the unsayable sayable. That said, Reform would have to be responsible enough to focus on important issues and good policies or else the feud would descend into marginal squabbling—crass and off-putting.

“Responsible” is not a word commonly associated with Farage. He is a man who cares very much about the interests of Nigel Farage, which makes him politically and ideologically inconsistent. That he was more focused on Donald Trump than Reform as recently as May does not instill a lot of confidence that he has a long-term plan. The vagueness of his campaign promises also inspires the perception that he has not thought a great deal about what will happen after July 4. Hopes that Reform will exist as a right-wing challenge to the Conservatives should be tempered by the memory that Farage was “open-minded” about joining the Conservatives back in February. 

Still, it would be childish to wallow in skepticism. The fact is that Farage’s charisma, ebullience and un-PC instincts have rejuvenated the British right—offering the hope that an alternative can rise out of the ashes of Conservative rule. Perhaps it will not be Reform. Perhaps the maverick Dominic Cummings—no friend of Farage—will launch his “anti-insider” party instead. But energy has to exist rather than bitterness and gloom, and Farage is nothing if not energetic. 

You can tell that the left are concerned. They would not be gloating about childish antics like Farage being sprayed with beer and milkshakes on the campaign trail if they were not aware of the popularity that makes his chaotic public appearances possible in the first place.

Keir Starmer’s victory will not be comparable to Tony Blair’s triumph in 1997. Then, a charismatic, personable leader was taking charge in a time of relative economic good fortune. Now, a robotic leader will be taking charge in a time of shrinking prospects and institutional dysfunction. Right-wingers will have ample opportunities to earn support at the expense of Stony Blair—but they will need boldness and optimism. Whether or not that will be represented by Farage, he has created space for it.

All we needed was a little controversy.



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