Rishi Sunak leads the Tories in name alone – it’s fear of Farage that’s driving the agenda | Martin Kettle

The threat that the former Ukip leader may attract rightwing support inside and outside the party is causing sleepless nights

In arguably the best book on British politics published in 2022, Michael Crick suggests that in the past half-century, this country’s five most significant politicians have been Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Alex Salmond, Boris Johnson – and Nigel Farage. The first four exerted their influence on events by getting elected to high office. The fifth, Farage, did not. But his influence is as strong today as ever.

Farage’s case for inclusion on this select list rests on two things. The first is his potent ability to connect with the public. As one of his media advisers puts it: “He speaks fluent human.” The other is his unmatched ability to influence other politicians without engaging with them directly, without ever displaying much discernible interest in policy, without getting elected to parliament, without ever having run anything, and in spite of leaving a trail of enemies and political casualties in his wake.

In spite of all of these things, Crick concludes, Farage has been: “a more significant player than most leaders of the traditional political parties, more influential than quite a few prime ministers”. Fail to understand this, and you may fail to understand not only the Brexit referendum of 2016 but also to understand continuing British politics of the early 21st century at all, right up to and including the present time.

He doesn’t make daily headlines just now, but his influence is as strong today as ever. That’s because, although Farage nominally retired from politics a couple of years ago, his flirtations with a return to the fray continue to shape the way that politics is evolving. In fact, it is hard to understand the Conservative party as it staggers from 2022 into 2023 without the Farage factor. The same, to a lesser extent, is even true of Labour.

The Farage factor is really the fear of Farage factor. In the Tories’ case, you may suppose, given Labour’s lead in the opinion polls, or in the light of the Liberal Democrats’ stunning byelection victories in previously safe Tory seats, that the minds of most Conservative MPs are now fully concentrated on the very real threat to their seats from Keir Starmer and Ed Davey.

Not a bit of it. The threat that keeps many Tories awake at night is not from Starmer or Davey, but the one from Farage. It’s the threat, for which there are in fact only tantalising wisps of anything one would normally dignify as evidence, that Farage is about to return as leader of the Ukip and Brexit party successor, Reform UK, and campaign in the next general election on an anti-immigration platform that will reshape British politics.

If this looks a curious anxiety, consider the two parliamentary byelections in north-west England this month. In both City of Chester and Stretford and Urmston, Reform finished a distant fifth, well behind not just Labour (which held both seats) and the Conservatives, but the Lib Dems and the Greens. In Chester, Reform won 2.7% of the vote; in Stretford and Urmston, 3.5%. Since both seats are in the north-west, where the Farage threat is deemed to be high, these results may seem something of a corrective to the prevailing Tory fear. But you can forget that.

It may be tempting to treat this anxiety with a “more fools they” dismissal. But this fails to take account of the still febrile state of the Tory party at the end of the year of three prime ministers. It fails to take account of the fact that much of the Tory right at Westminster agrees with Farage. It fails to grasp, in particular, that much of the party as a whole feels particularly vulnerable, post-Brexit, to public anxiety about borders.

Above all it fails to see that large parts of the party do not regard Rishi Sunak as what he actually is – the Tory party’s best chance of minimising its losses against Starmer in 2024. Instead, these Conservatives see Sunak as a stopgap who, if he veers off their agenda, should be ousted in favour of a leader better able to defend the party’s right flank against Farage. Ask yourself at this point why Johnson, though accepting that he could not run again as leader when Liz Truss quit in October, is now once again putting himself about at Westminster and pledging to stay as an MP, and you may have a clue to what some MPs would like to happen next year.

Nowhere is the fear of Farage more clear or more potent than over immigration policy. Polls show that six out of 10 voters – and three-quarters of 2019 Tory voters – think Britain has lost control of its borders. Farage has greater backing to deal with this issue than either Sunak or Starmer. One in six 2019 Tory voters claim they would vote for Reform next time. Suella Braverman is attempting to position herself as the tribune of these Farage-fearing Tories. Sunak is not standing up to them.

The Duke of Wellington, later a Conservative prime minister, once said that the presence of Napoleon on the battlefield was worth 40,000 extra soldiers to the other side. In the duke’s party today, they think that about Farage. “He can move numbers, he can move polls, he can move people,” a Tory MP said last week. Well, maybe he can. Maybe he can’t. But in the Tory party it’s the thought that he can that matters right now.

  • Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist


Martin Kettle

The GuardianTramp

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