It was like he never went away. Clearly tired of tracking down migrants on the Kent coast, Nigel Farage has decided to re-enter the political fray with a sort-of new party.
Reform UK is the revamped version of the band formerly known as the Brexit Party, with frontman Farage promising to focus on the Government’s “woeful” response to the Covid crisis.
So, what chance does Farage have of making his own second wave in British politics?
The case for Reform UK is straightforward. It’s got a well-established, media-savvy leader, an existing (if limited) party infrastructure, a few big potential donors to call on and a band of enthusiastic Farage-ists bound to lap up whatever he says. Remember too that the original Brexit Party was a roaring success, winning 29 seats at the last European Parliament elections – the most of any party in the entire EU.
In terms of public support, the sizeable ‘none of the above’ vote always needs somewhere to go, and there’s no obvious candidate as it stands, especially since the Lib Dems have rowed in behind the Government and Labour in backing endless restrictions.
And many people will share Farage’s scathing analysis of the Covid response, with lockdown tearing a hole in the fabric of the British economy and ordinary Brits chafing under exceedingly illiberal laws and regulations.
Despite all that, I’m deeply unconvinced that this party is going anywhere. First there is what you might call the ‘base case’ – unestablished parties tend to not do very well in British politics. When they have done well in recent years, it’s been at European Parliament elections, which we no longer take part in (in no small part thanks to one N Farage).
Although Farage’s political talent and communication skills are not in doubt, he’s also synonymous with a particular cause, and he’s more or less won the battle he spent decades fighting. Like him or not, you can’t deny he is among the most consequential politicians in British history, certainly the most consequential non-government one of this or probably any era.
Of course, it may be more useful to think of Reform UK as a pressure group than a conventional party. Still, in taking up the anti-lockdown cause, Farage is ploughing a furrow that is not particularly personally associated with him and fundamentally time-limited – much more so than campaigning to leave the EU or to get a ‘proper’ Brexit. If Reform UK is just an ‘anti-lockdown’ organisation, the moment the Government starts lifting restrictions, its raison d’etre starts to wither.
And even if lockdown does drag on and on, it’s not clear either that opposition to it would necessarily coalesce around someone like Farage. A recent YouGov polling suggests about 1 in 4 voters is opposed to the latest restrictions, but with opposition highest among the 18-24s, probably the demographic group least favourable to Farage’s brand of politics.
On the other hand, if Farage wants this to be more than a single issue project, there isn’t really that much political space for promising to shake up the establishment, given that this government’s main non-Covid project is leaving the European Union – about as big a rupture as you could have imagined before the virus came along. Nor do I suspect that many Tory MPs will be swayed into changing their position because of a new entrant snapping at their heels. Those already opposed don’t need any extra encouragement, and those grudgingly accepting the current predicament are not going to be too worried about an insurgent to the right four years out from an election.
Then there’s the name. Like its Remainiac mirror image, Change UK, ‘Reform UK’ is a vague, non-committal moniker that may struggle to capture people’s imagination. ‘The Brexit Party’ was the Ronseal of British politics – you knew without much enquiry what they stood for and what their core goal was. ‘Reform’ is altogether more nebulous and unexciting – doesn’t pretty much every party claim it’s going to reform things? Not many go into politics because they think everything’s absolutely great as it is.
Perhaps none of this is really that important though. If, as I suspect, Farage’s goal is simply to get back into the game, be on TV a bit more often, get those metronomically regular calls from Question Time producers and all the rest, he may well succeed on those terms – just don’t expect all that publicity to translate into meaningful political change this time.
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