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Farage’s return is a disaster for the Tories

In World
June 03, 2024

In what was arguably the most decisive moment of the 2019 campaign, with support for his Brexit Party already slipping in the polls, Nigel Farage announced that he was withdrawing his party’s candidates from all of the seats that the Conservatives were defending. Support for the party fell away further as Leave voters nearly all fell in behind Boris Johnson’s call to “Get Brexit done”.

Now, Mr Farage has intervened decisively once again. With support for Reform having held up in the early campaigns – and with no sign of any discernible increase in Conservative support – this time he has brought the Tories news that they will not want to hear.

Not only has he changed his mind about standing in the election, but he has also taken over from Richard Tice as leader of Reform. As a result, Rishi Sunak’s first key task in this election campaign – to win over the many 2019 Tory voters who have since defected to Reform – now looks much more difficult.

Previous polling has suggested voters are more likely to opt for Reform if Mr Farage were to return as its leader. Such hypothetical polling should always be treated with care. However, Mr Farage is a charismatic politician who is entering a contest where that quality is in short supply. He certainly seems more likely than the urbane Richard Tice to be able to keep Reform in the headlines.

And the better Reform do, the more difficult it will be for the Conservatives. Moreover, because Mr Farage pulled Brexit Party candidates out of Tory-held seats in 2019, it will be in seats that Mr Sunak is now defending where the damage will be worst.

More difficult to judge is whether Mr Farage can win the Clacton seat that he is now contesting and which he is hoping will provide him with a parliamentary platform for the next five years. The constituency is one of the most pro-Brexit parts of the country – as many as 72 per cent are thought to have voted Leave in 2016. Moreover, it was the one seat that Ukip managed to win in the 2015 election in what was a poor reward for winning 13 per cent of the vote.

But Ukip’s standard-bearer in 2015, Douglas Carswell, had previously been the high profile Conservative MP for the seat and had already successfully defended it under Ukip’s banner in a by-election the previous year. Even in these straitened times for the Conservatives, it looks like a very safe seat. We will have to see if Mr Farage can beat the odds.

John Curtice is professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde, and senior fellow at the National Centre for Social Research and ‘The UK in a Changing Europe’. He is also co-host of the ‘Trendy’ podcast

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