Maybe Nigel's not coming
Hints that Farage will be garaged
One of the “known unknowns” hovering around the next election is whether Nigel Farage will make another electoral comeback. The prospect has been repeatedly teased by the Reform Party and the man himself – to the worry of many Tory strategists. His lack of commitment, however, is noticeable, with vague references to “Timing” as he refuses to confirm his plans. This vacillation starts to look like he isn’t going to come at all. Moreover, there is much to suggest this is the sensible move for him.
Farage has been a constant presence for nearly two decades of politics. As an MEP and leader of UKIP, he menaced the Tories from the Eurosceptic right, taking their votes and badgering them towards Brexit. His insurgent party in 2019 eviscerated them in the Euro elections, partly prompting the implosion of the May ministry. Since then he has continued to harp from the sidelines.
Through all this, one thing has eluded him – a seat in the Commons. He has lost seven parliamentary elections, the narrowest in 2015 by just a couple of thousand votes. The pro-Nigel narrative is that this year he could change this. Seizing on his own popularity, and the freefalling Tories, he could edge them out in somewhere like Thanet or Clacton and in doing so also inflate the fortunes of Reform, pushing them to a better performance across the board.
Farage however seems lukewarm on the plan. He didn’t turn up to Reform’s 2024 relaunch last month. He’s been fairly reticent about backing the party’s candidates in by-elections. Even Reform leader Richard Tice admits that Farage's return as a candidate is unlikely. More than that, however, his presence even as a talisman for the campaign seems uncertain. It is perhaps because he understands that a failed intervention here could ruin his legacy and self-image and that dangling the possibility of a return is far more powerful than anything else.
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The reality is that Farage’s position has always been parasitical of the Conservative Party. Now that host is withering, so is he. The power of UKIP came from denying Tories seats in the key marginals they needed for a majority. It was this that forced ambitious, or governing, parties to make accommodations to compete for the same voters. It’s less important when they are fighting over whether their rump is 50 or 150. After the next election, Labour won’t need Reform, and the Tories won’t be able to do anything for them. The leverage of a rival party on the right will be gone.
There’s a real chance that Farage will be a busted flush with this, and the more he stakes on it, the more involved he gets, the greater this fall looks. As a candidate, there is every chance he would fail again. Reform may be jumping in the polls, but there is no evidence of this turning into votes in by-elections, betraying a weakness in their organisation and ground game. In another run at parliament, there is every chance he falls short, either edged out by a Tory or by Labour sneaking through the middle. He’d be left, like many will be, sad and rejected in a leisure centre at 3 am.
Even in the best case, he ends up in parliament, it is probably a bind rather than a boon. As an MEP, Farage was able to make limelight-chasing speeches and avoid a lot of scrutiny. The opposite will be true of being the sole Reformer in Westminster. His outside earnings would have to be declared, bringing new attention to his finances, and potentially losing him lucrative work. He’d have the hassle of maintaining a constituency office and casework – again, with the press happy to latch on to any constituent who felt he’d failed them. Within Westminster, Farage have no real influence in the face of a Labour government and would only get the odd snippet of speaking time. It would be hard work and give him less of a platform than he currently enjoys.
As such, a full-fat return means months of hard work for little upside and a high chance of embarrassment. But the same seems true of the Reform cheerleader Tice and co. want. Instead of being the kingmaker, he is going to be tied to a party that has little overall impact – certainly unlikely to win any seats and overshadowed by huge a huge Labour triumph. It’s hard to overestimate the narrative shift which will come, as newspapers fill with Keir walking into Number 10, Tory ministers with their heads in their hands and the establishment of a new political era. The Reform story will be a total afterthought. There will be no more swagger, no more braggadocio from Farage, just a quiet exit from stage right.
On top of this, if Farage throws his lot in with Reform it makes it harder for him to influence the post-election Tory Party. Since the last conference, the idea of Farage returning to the Tory fold has been kicked around. Farage rallying for Reform in the election would stymy this. Reform is absolutely going to stick it the Conservatives throughout the campaign, making it harder for Farage to manage any sway on the party if he’s actively involved.
Increasingly, it feels like Farage recognises this. His current reticence to swing into the Reform campaign feels like he’s just letting them hang. His reasoning makes little sense unless he’s twigged that there’s no point and he just wants to string out the “will he, won’t he”. The excuse he gives is timing, but this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny.
There is nothing on the horizon that makes this make sense. Before, Farage has found smart deadlines to hang his moves around. The 2019 EU elections were one, and so too the various Brexit deadlines that came and went. Nothing is kicking around this summer that has the same effect. No great crisis that could spur him into action, that frames a narrative. For example, even if the Lords kick back Rwanda, he’s going to be on the same side as the government. It’s hard to see what window he is looking for.
More than that, politics in a general election year is more about time in the market than timing the market. If Farage thinks that he can move the dial for Reform, it makes no sense to wait. The earlier he energises them the better – allowing the enthusiasm for him to flow into recruiting local volunteers and building up the ground machine. If Reform candidates want to make a difference, they need a good long run-up, and Farage is denying them energy for this. If he keeps his powder dry, the effect of his rearrival is diminished, especially once we get into the purdah period where political reporting is more tightly regulated.
The signs are there that Nigel knows all this too. It explains the distance he keeps from Reform and his intentions towards the Tories. He understands how to keep his brand alive and how to milk it. The “I’m a celeb…” appearance fits this mould too: a sign he is cashing in on the remaining value of his celebrity before an election that will render him an irrelevance. He’s once again popped up on the US circuit too, and spending October as a Trump warm-up act will be far more lucrative than walkabouts with Richard Tice in Skegness.
Farage has made his name, and a fortune, playing the press and politics. He can read the direction of the winds, and he knows what advances his causes, whether those are policy aims or self-promotion. My view is that he can sense a comeback would be a mistake, with real potential for embarrassment and ignominy. Far better to dangle it and keep people guessing than end up like Mohammad Ali in ’81, a spectre of your former self, the myth tarnished by its testing. The logical stance is for Farage to stay out of things, and his actions mirror that. In bad news for Reform hopefuls, I don’t think Nigel is coming.
If this is right, it leaves Reform in a very poor position. At the moment there is a clear lag between their polling position and the votes they pick up. It feels in some ways like they function as a “none of the above” in surveys, or else the engaged nature of poll answerers skews their figures. In any case, to compete in a crowded campaign, they will need an arresting narrative and an effective ground game. Without Nigel coming back, their route to either seems much harder. Which perhaps helps the Tories, but also helps Farage keep his mythos intact.