Is Brexit king Nigel Farage the answer to Tory woes?

LONDON — Liz Truss’ latest big idea to save Britain is to rope in Nigel Farage. Not everyone is convinced.

Speaking in the United States last week, Britain’s shortest-lived prime minister suggested Britain’s Mr. Brexit — once a thorn in Tory sides — should be brought into the fold to “help turn our country around.” Her suggestion came just weeks after he turned up at the launch of her new Popular Conservatives group

The outspoken and controversial Farage is currently honorary president of upstart rival party Reform, having been a leading figure in the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union. A surge in support for his former UK Independence Party (UKIP) in the early 2010s was widely credited as a factor in then-PM David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum in 2016. 

The euroskeptic former MEP quit frontline politics in 2021 claiming he had achieved what he wanted thanks to the Conservatives’ Brexit deal. 

But Farage has continued to cultivate his public profile, carving out a lucrative presenting career on Britain’s right-leaning start-up TV channel GB News, where he often uses his nightly weekday show to criticize Britain’s current political leaders for not being tough enough on issues including immigration and taxation. He also had a starring role on the popular reality show “I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here.”

Now, amid atrocious poll ratings ahead of this year’s general election, some Conservatives are actively courting the populist Farage, believing he could win back Tory voters considering defecting to his Reform UK Party or just staying home. 

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It did not go unnoticed that Farage was hailed like a rock star by delegates at the Conservatives’ annual conference in Manchester last year when he gained entrance as an anchor for GB News.

“I’ve always regarded Nigel as a Tory,” said David Campbell Bannerman, a former MEP who defected from UKIP to the Conservatives in 2011. He is a “low tax, strong defense, strong law and order, small state conservative” who would “be a good fit,” he claims.

Farage could even become the party’s immigration spokesman after the election, Campbell Bannerman suggested.

The Reform president has not ruled out a return to the party he left in 1993, but has made it clear it would not be under current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s leadership. 

Risky business

Ministers, pollsters and strategists are less convinced of the merits of embracing Farage.

“While bringing Nigel Farage into the Tory fold would gain the Tories some votes on the right, he would likely lose votes on the center-right, putting seats in places like the Blue Wall at risk,” warned Luke Tryl, U.K. director of the public opinion research consultancy More in Common, referencing more affluent Conservative seats in the south of England.

Liz Truss’ latest big idea to save Britain is to rope in Nigel Farage. Not everyone is convinced | Leon Neal/Getty Images

“More than that it is likely that Farage’s dominant personality and tendency towards saying the inflammatory and extreme would make message discipline impossible, and risk furthering the sense of Tory division that has proved so toxic with the electorate in recent years,” he added.

One former Tory strategist involved in the 2016 Brexit referendum campaign, granted anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the record in their new role, was even more scathing. 

“The fact there are some Tories, even those as deluded as Truss, seriously considering this, tells you how much there is a vacuum of ideas in the Conservative Party,” they said.

While some in the party would welcome his return, the former strategist warned that “for [Farage] to feel at home with the Conservative Party, it would have to look like a Conservative Party which a lot of other people don’t feel comfortable in.”

For other Conservatives, embracing an old enemy would just be too hard. 

Explaining why he would not support a Farage return, Deputy Prime Minister Oliver Dowden, a close ally of Sunak, told the BBC: “I, like many hundreds and thousands of Conservatives up and down the country, have spent many years campaigning against parties led by Nigel Farage.”

With the election coming up, some people discuss whether Farage would be a positive or negative force | Peter Summers/Getty Images

The case for Farage

With an election looming, and Tories searching for solutions to their current electoral malaise, the Farage question is unlikely to go away. 

Current Cabinet minister and former GB News presenter Esther McVey told the channel earlier this month that Farage should have been given a seat in the House of Lords after Brexit, describing herself as a “fan” who wanted to see him being a “positive force.”

“If you’re going to say make or break the Conservative Party, of course I’d want him to make the Conservative Party,” she added.

Another GB News presenter, the former Tory Cabinet minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, said Farage was “essentially a Conservative in most of his views.”

Focus groups suggest Farage still holds popular appeal.

“He was a mastermind over Brexit. People voted with Farage and, yeah, if they brought him back, they would get more votes,” a social worker called Ryan in the Midland market town of Wellingborough told More in Common researchers studying potential Reform voters earlier this month.

In January in Grimsby, a wind turbine technician called Jordan lamented what he described as the Tories being  “very detached” from “working class people,” adding he thought Farage “gets it a bit more.”

For all the likely drawbacks, it’s comments like this that keep Farage on the minds of Britain’s ailing Conservatives.