28 November 2023

Making plans for Nigel? Then the Tories should think again…


We’re only making plans for Nigel
We only want what’s best for him
We’re only making plans for Nigel
Nigel just needs that helping hand

So sang XTC back in 1979. It’s a cracking song about a lad who has finds his future career working for British Steel mapped out for him by a pair of overbearing parents. I’d hardly want to make assumptions about the music tastes (or parenting styles) of my audience. But the sentiment seems to be one shared by ConservativeHome’s readers, if directed at a very different Nigel. 

In a recent survey, seven in ten of our panel members said that Nigel Farage should be admitted to the Conservatives if he sought membership. This is no bolt from the blue. Following his star-turn at this year’s Party Conference, Farage is said to have told a reporter he’d be ‘very surprised’ if he wasn’t ‘Conservative leader by 2026’. ‘Very surprised,’ he added, for nobody’s particular benefit. 

Currently, Farage is squatting in the Australian jungle, munching on a four-penis pizza and lamenting his lack of screen-time, a Colonel Kurtz for Ant and Dec’s Britain. He reportedly signed up for I’m a Celebrity to reach a younger audience than he’s used to on GBNews. That might be a tad far-fetched – us youngsters have moved on – but could he really be plotting a Tory takeover?

With a cool £1.5m in the bank – take that, Coutts! – Farage might be tempted to put his feet up. But he is still, remarkably, younger than Keir Starmer and shows no sign of losing the hunger for publicity that has dragged him from Dulwich to Down Under, via UKIP, LBC, the Brexit Party, and a bracing encounter with a low-flying milkshake.  Retirement is a condition reserved for his viewers. 

Farage’s appeal to Conservative members is obvious. They were for Brexit, so was he. He is a celebrity, a talented media performer with levels of name recognition few politicians can match. He is on the same side as members frustrated by small boats, high taxes, Net Zero, and wokery. Being outside of Parliament (and the party), he is untainted by the farce and failure of 13 years of Tory rule.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, Simon Clark, and even Rishi Sunak are amongst those who have floated Farage returning to a party he quit three decades ago. The enfant terribles at J’Accuse have plotted out a path for him to do so. A right-wing candidate at the next leadership election, courting the GBNews vote, could campaign on readmitting Farage and finding him a safe seat (if any still exist).  

But Farage would never be happy playing second fiddle to Suella Braverman or Kemi Badenoch. A figure of his fame and fondness for self-promotion would hardly be content as a right-wing Ringo, drumming along at the back of someone else’s outfit. A leadership challenge would eventually come (with a little help from his friends). Get him into the final two and his victory would be odds-on. 

Hence why Michael Crick, Farage’s erstwhile biographer, puts his chances of becoming Tory leader at ‘one in five’. Like his chum Donald Trump, Farage would have conquered a party he had long spurned. After all those failed attempts to enter Parliament, he would be on Downing Street’s threshold – a much greater achievement than anything managed by Enoch Powell, his boyhood hero.  

As someone who has appeared on Farage’s show, and is sympathetic to many of his causes and campaigns, I would be lying if that idea didn’t possess some quixotic thrill. But as someone with a personal investment in the Conservative Party’s future, I would urge my fellow Tories to not to put their faith in Faragism, to ignore his Antipodean antics, and for CCHQ to reject any membership application they receive. 

Why? For one thing, admitting Farage would almost certainly split the party. Whatever the rights and wrongs of giving membership to a man known to have lunched with BNP activists, the substantial minority of activists on the One Nation or Europhile wing of the party would have a fit. The Lib Dems will be eagerly measuring the majorities of any Tory seat that voted Remain.  

Pertinently, if polling is to believed, this wing of the party is only likely to have a larger influence after the next election. Members might trend towards the right. But if the Tories are reduced to a rump concentrated in the South-East, analysis suggests that the remaining MPs are more likely to be pro-Sunak, left-leaning, and ex-ministers. For them, Farage’s leadership would be anathema. 

As such, either Farage himself, or a candidate elected on a Faragist platform, would be courting a split between MPs and the membership that would make the defenestrations of Iain Duncan Smith and Liz Truss look positively civil. Farage could either find himself forced out of a party he had only just re-joined or leading one whose MPs had resigned en masse. Neither would be a great look. 

But good riddance, some might say. If the Conservative Party hasn’t been suitably conservative, it deserves to be the victim of a hostile takeover. Yet such an outcome would be disastrous for exactly the sort of agenda which Farage’s supporters aim. Installing Farage would be a gift to the left, not a victory for the right. 

For all the adulation he received in Manchester, outside the conference bubble, Farage remains ludicrously unpopular. As Obadiah Mbatang has highlighted, there exists a ‘Farage Paradox’: the greater his media exposure, the more unpopular his causes become. Polling suggests he is disliked by more than half of voters and distrusted by two-thirds. Eating a few Koala testicles won’t change that. 

Farage’s unpopularity was why Vote Leave studiously excluded him from the main Brexit campaign. He was toxic for exactly the sorts of middle-class voters they needed to attract. Members of my own family only voted Leave after being assured Farage wouldn’t become Prime Minister. Making him Tory leader could repel as many Tory voters as it might attract, and toxify his agenda for millions. 

More importantly, one doubts whether Farage would make for a particularly effective leader. Even if he could unite Conservative MPs behind him, his repeated failures to be elected to Parliament or to translate UKIP votes into seats belie an ineptness at political strategy. He could have turned the Red Wall purple had he swapped re-heated Thatcherism for the anti-austerity politics voters wanted. 

Instead, the arduous task of calibrating the pitch for Brexit to where swing voters were fell to Vote Leave – an outcome that any Eurosceptic should be glad for. Commentators might find it easier to blame Farage for Brexit than bother to understand why 17m voters opted for it. But any ‘right power list’ that places Farage ahead of Dominic Cummings should not be taken seriously. 

And yet Farage chugs onwards, his unmatched capacity for self-promotion ensuring he remains to haunt liberal imaginations and give CCHQ a few sleepless nights. But if the Coutts farrago showed anything, it is that, for all his anti-politics rhetoric, Farage longs to be embraced by the establishment as wholeheartedly as any other rebellious public schoolboy.  

So the answer to Sunak’s Farage problem is simple. Don’t bother making him a Tory party member – send him to the House of Lords. There he can do far less damage, pontificate as much as he likes, and be seen as the consequential political figure he undoubtedly wants to be. Lord Farage of Thanet has a certain ring to it. Nigel’s future is as good as sealed.  

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William Atkinson is Assistant Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.