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Potent return of Farage places Sunak and Starmer in a perilous position

Whether you like it or not, Nigel Farage is back and here to stay. This is bad news for Keir Starmer and Rishi Sunak. It has nearly been a week since Farage pulled the biggest curveball of this election campaign and announced that he would be standing for Parliament, and leading Reform UK for the next six years. In the six days since this bombshell announcement, the ‘Farage effect’ is now evidently in full swing. The political duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives should be worried. 

The return of Farage is proving to be an existential threat to Sunak’s Tories. Since the announcement, two polls - one by YouGov and the other by Redfield & Wilton - have placed Reform just two points behind the Conservatives. This is unprecedented. Not even at the zenith of UKIP’s influence were they able to be within touching distance of the Tories. In marginal constituencies up and down the country, where the Tories had at least a semblance of a chance of securing seats, the Farage effect is now certain to split the right-wing vote. Not even a banana milkshake drenching could blunt this momentum. 

For Sunak, this should be deeply troubling. Over the past year, we have seen the Conservatives pursue an increasingly Farage-esque rhetoric and policy to prevent the haemorrhaging of votes to Reform. As Rafael Behr aptly wrote in The Guardian this week, Sunak’s campaign has largely been a “Nigel Farage tribute act”, and now the return of the man himself has left the Tories “upstaged.” This was a very exact assessment. 

The Tories have been vigorously centring their campaign around immigration and national security. They have been royally transcended on both issues by the return of Farage. On immigration, Farage highlighted the ineptitude of Tory policy and the emptiness of their rhetoric after revealing, in the seven-way televised debate, that under the Conservatives the number of the non-UK born population had increased to 4.3 million. For a party that, since David Cameron, has promised to cut immigration by ‘tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands’, it is a damning indictment of either ineptitude, or far worse, superfluous duplicity. 

On national security, Sunak’s catastrophic D-Day blunder demonstrated quite how out of touch he is with the nation on how important it is to remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms we enjoy today. This was an own goal of cataclysmic proportions for Sunak, playing into the hands of Farage who had not only raised £100,000 for veterans to attend the 80th anniversary in Normandy, but who attends the memorial services year in year out. You cannot feign patriotism. I know I have been in support of Sunak’s concept for a national service, but I cannot now help but feel it was just a desperate pandering to the right (again) with no real sense of national duty and pride behind it. 

It is not just Sunak who is set to suffer with the comeback of Farage. Starmer and his merry-bunch of hindsight henchmen are also in precarious waters. The return of Nigel Farage has captured significant media attention and continues to do so. The sheer dullness of Starmer’s campaign - which, in effect, is merely ‘vote for us because we’re not the Tories’ - is undoubtedly being overshadowed by Farage’s charismatic campaigning. Why is this bad news for Starmer? Let me reintroduce the Brexit red wall. 

Farage’s return has brought memories, good or bad, of Brexit back to the forefront. This is a real inconvenience for Starmer. Labour has tried to move beyond Brexit, to obfuscate their desire to incrementally rollback its provisions. Many in the traditional red wall, that voted in sheer numbers for Boris Johnson to implement Brexit, will not have forgotten the contempt Starmer treated them with. Starmer, under Corbyn’s Labour, was obsessed with a ‘People’s Vote’. This is such an ironic name for a vote that sought to reverse the will of the people expressed in a referendum, but anyway.

This camp was filled with the chattering classes, champagne socialists, and, quite frankly, those who thought that those who had voted for Brexit, in the working class areas of the North and the Midlands, were either too old or too thick to be listened to. This was a lamentable display of disdain and denigration. I am sure those derided against have not forgotten and will show their scorn at the ballot box. 

Not to mention how Labour’s economic message has now been seriously undermined. The rhetoric of Farage is populist. You could even go so far as to say it is economically nationalist. This resonates acutely with working-class voters concerned about both their jobs and immigration. The overlap with Labour’s traditional voter base in the North and Midlands, and those who support Farage’s ideals of Brexit, national sovereignty, and populist economics, is profound. I don’t think much consideration is being given to this by the mainstream media. 

It is as though they have forgotten that, despite Tory paranoia at the time over ‘Blukip’, it was Labour who lost more votes to Farage’s UKIP in the 2015 election. Farage’s tried-and-tested ability to appeal and mobilise this voter base with his ‘common sense’, populist economic messages could seriously erode Labour support in key battleground constituencies. 

Whilst it is almost a foregone conclusion that Labour will win this election, this does not mean that the return of Farage will not continue to haunt Starmer deep into his premiership. Farage has made no secret of his desire to consolidate the right-wing vote, to replicate the death of the Conservatives and the rise of Reform as the opposition, as seen in Canada in 1993. If such a situation were to be recreated and Reform became the ‘new Conservatives’, a united front would make the Right a significant electoral threat. Coupled with the notion that Labour has no real plan except to raise taxes and do the opposite of what the Tories have done (whatever that actually means), I wouldn’t be surprised to see Starmer’s Labour electorally wiped out at the next trip to the ballot box. 

The return of Nigel Farage to the forefront of British politics places both Rishi Sunak and Keir Starmer in perilous positions. Irrespective of your personal opinions on Farage, of which I am sure there is a real array of colourful perspectives, the premise that the contemptuous duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives being taken to task is ultimately a good thing for our democracy. The Tories deserve an electoral battering, and with Reform resurgent, they are sure to receive this. Labour do not deserve the eye-watering majority that many pollsters predict. Starmer is not the second coming of Blair. Farage’s return is set to be a significant check and balance on Labour’s success at the ballot box. For both Starmer and Sunak, they should be particularly worried. 

Image: Gage Skidmore

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