Farage is back to haunt the Tories

Published by The i paper (13th May, 2019)

He’s back. Like the grinning villain in a grotesque horror movie, Nigel Farage has returned to terrify the tortured Tories. Already he has destroyed one prime minister, frightening him into calling a foolish referendum that left a nation riddled with scars. Now another leader writhes in agony as she refuses to leave her Downing Street sanctuary, ignoring ever-more desperate pleas from her party as it recoils in fear from this smirking populist. Meanwhile he prowls television studios screeching of betrayal, taunting his foes and preparing to inflict more pain on Britain’s wounded body politic. 

It may seem, of course, that Farage never went away, such has been his ubiquity on radio and television. But the former Ukip leader and MEP said he was coming out of ‘semi-retirement’ last month, such a strange term for holding an elected office paying £7,549 each month plus lavish expenses. No doubt he wanted to distance himself from Brexit – enabling him to blame others for the disaster he unleashed on the nation – while watching his former party slide into irrelevance and picking up tips from his creepy white supremacist pal Steve Bannon, the former Trump strategist. 

Regardless, Farage is most definitely back on the political frontline, doing his man of the people schtick as he travels the country in a chauffeur-driven Range Rover from his £4m Chelsea home. It was Question Time number 34 for the BBC last week, then yet another outing on Andrew Marr’s show on Sunday. His new cult is backed by a wealthy financier and an army of adoring followers. And it is causing total panic in a Tory party that seems to have lost all sanity and sense of purpose as it tears itself apart over trying to leave the European Union.

The Brexit Party is surging in polls before elections that could not have been better designed to turbo-charge its launch – especially against a Tory party arguing we should no longer be in Brussels. One weekend survey suggested bigger vote share than both main parties combined in next week’s European elections. Another warned Farage’s new force could win more votes than the Conservatives in a general election while handing power to the appalling Jeremy Corbyn.

Even these figures flatter the Tories, however, for why would anyone vote for such a floundering force right now? Their only crumb of comfort is both Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith would be ousted. But all the Tories seem bothered about is who will be their next leader, even if May’s successor will inherit a party falling apart thanks to its own stupidity as even some of its own activists flock to aid the Farage fan club.

Strategists are being hired, spin doctors recruited, job promises sprayed around, spouses paraded in papers as self-regarding shrimps jostle for the spotlight. Rumours whizz around Westminster with names touted that are barely known at their own breakfast table. Even Steve Baker, a junior Brexit minister for five minutes, says he might stand – no doubt seeking to rally the nation with a return to the gold standard and opposition to gay rights.

Never mind the looming threat of Corbyn, let alone so many problems building up behind Brexit paralysis such as creaking social care and crumbling housing. Nor indeed that parliamentary arithmetic does not change with a new leader, so the difficulties of extrication from Europe remain the same.

And amazingly, given his arrogance, disloyalty and gross incompetence, Johnson remains front-runner as we prepare for this Tory bonfire of the vanities. Yet if anyone thinks this vain egotist is the answer to our nation’s woes, even if he has lost weight and cut his hair, then they are clearly asking the wrong question.

The Tories, once so dependably focused on power, are at a crossroads. Yes, they can continue to pander to populists, appease the hard-right and drive away more and more metropolitan, moderate, ethnic minority, female and young voters – which in Tory terms, means under 51 since this is now the ‘tipping point’ age when people become more likely to support this shrinking force. Yet the lessons from abroad, most recently Spain, are clear: this defensive strategy sheds centrists while still losing support to those even further right in these turbulent times.

This route leads to doom. The Tories slunk back into office in 2017 by firing up the party’s toxicity and weaponising immigration to lure socially-conservative, nativist and less well-educated citizens. But this share of the electorate is shrinking one per cent each year. Rory Stewart, one of the more impressive leadership runners, has talked openly of taking ‘short-term pain’ of a split to push through Brexit with Labour support. But they need to go far further: the party should deliberately drive out the unyielding ultra-rightists from their ranks to have any faint hope of salvation.

There are no easy paths ahead after the Brexit earthquake. Labour, which is even more divided, faces similar existential issues. But right now Tories face the biggest threat and the hardcore Brexiteers have done too much damage over the decades.

If these buffoons and fanatics are so unwilling to compromise, preferring to sacrifice country and party before their ambitions, let them join their soulmate in the Brexit Party rather than continue to destroy their own team. Then the rest can try to solve – or ideally ditch – Brexit, followed by fresh makeover as a pro-market, progressive centre-right force focused on all those voters repelled by extremists on both flanks.

It may be too late to save the Tories from disaster. But as Farage returns to haunt them, they face a choice: either quiver in fear as he stomps around and screams before succumbing to his threat – or attempt to fight back against his dark forces.

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