During the 2015 general election campaign, when I was directing operations at the London HQ for Ukip, I had an 'absolutely brilliant' idea. The next day Nigel Farage would be campaigning on the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, where he was standing for election. On our grid, it was earmarked to be Small Business Day – designed to showcase the party’s manifesto focus on the self-employed and SMEs, aka 'the backbone of the British economy'.
My plan? During his campaigning, Nigel should visit a butcher, a baker and a candlestick-maker (as mentioned in the nursery rhyme ‘Rub-A-Dub-Dub’). A suitable butcher’s shop and a bakery near to his route were swiftly identified. But the scheme collapsed because, try as we might, we could not find a candlestick-maker anywhere in the vicinity of North Kent.
It turned out that my plan had a slight flaw – the frankly unhelpful advent of the National Grid many decades earlier had all but wiped out the candlestick-making trade. So in the end Nigel just visited various sole traders and niche companies and branded himself as the leader of the 'the party of small business'. Which is a key part of what he is doing again today.
It may strike people as strange that he should seize on anti-lockdown feeling to provide the launchpad for a remodelled Brexit party, soon to be rebadged as Reform UK. After all, a YouGov poll has just found that 72 per cent of people support the new lockdown and only 23 per cent are opposed.
And yet with his keen nose for unfashionable, non-Woke opinion, Farage will appreciate something crucial: that while support for another lockdown is apparently a mile wide, opposition to it runs very deep indeed among that wedge of around a quarter of the electorate.
Most of the objectors earn a living outside the public sector 'blob', with its guaranteed salaries and index-linked pensions. Many are entrepreneurs in the hospitality sector; publicans and restaurateurs. Others run high street retail businesses, such as dry cleaners or sandwich shops, that have seen trade all but wiped out by the mass switch to working from home.
Last December, this nation of shopkeepers – were I a psephologist seeking to break the electorate down into constituent tribes, I might call them 'entrepreneurial provincials' – overwhelmingly voted Tory. Less than a year later, they are about to form the biggest wave of bankruptcies to hit the UK since the sky-high interest rates of the ERM debacle that ended on Black Wednesday. Unsurprisingly they are as mad as hell and don’t intend to take it anymore.
In other words, for them a second lockdown is an issue so seismic that it will actually change the way they intend to vote. The same holds true for their families and many of their employees too – several million people altogether. And yet no party in Parliament represent these fierce opponents of lockdown.
So bingo, Nigel Farage has the wedge issue that can put him back in the game. Most of our entrepreneurial provincials also share soundly right-wing views on issues such as the EU, immigration, tax and regulation and defending British culture and heritage too. While they may not agree with Farage on everything (they are unlikely to be enthusiasts for Donald Trump, for instance), lots of them will have voted for him in his previous Ukip and Brexit party guises.
A month or so ago, I wrote on Coffee House that Farage’s inner-circle regarded immigration as the most likely potential vote-changer issue, with lockdown scepticism joining the 'war-on-Woke' as supporting pillars. But Boris Johnson’s panicky calling of a second national lockdown has changed all this. There was indeed an authority-shattering echo of Black Wednesday about it all: spend weeks insisting the current policy is the right one, become overwhelmed by events, then perform the epic U-turn for which many of your critics have been calling. Only this time round the shift has been further in the direction of the wrong approach, not away from it.
No wonder that on Saturday, Farage texted one confidant who had told him the stars were coming into alignment with the reply: 'I now agree, the moment has arrived'.
Back at the time of the 2015 election, Ukip under Farage had already pivoted to a strategy of targeting as many working-class Labour votes as middle-class Tory ones. It needed to do this to have any chance of winning seats. But its game-changing impact on British politics had taken place earlier, when it was having an asymmetric effect from 2010-14, almost exclusively taking votes from the Tory pile. That was what forced David Cameron to U-turn on the issue of an EU referendum, to which he had previously been fiercely opposed.
Much has been written recently about how Labour under Keir Starmer is still stuck with a 40 per cent ceiling of potential support. This is likely to remain the case. But the new rules – post the re-entry of Farage into the picture – say that 40 will be more than enough, because the Tories are heading down to 30.
Will Conservative MPs and the party’s collective leadership have the resilience, belief in their own approach and esprit-de-corps needed to tough it out, or will they buckle in the face of the Farage onslaught and shift decisively onto his anti-lockdown ground?
A study of recent political history tells us what is overwhelmingly the most likely answer to that question. This will be the last national lockdown and for that we will largely have to thank the guy who has so far failed to get into the Westminster bubble himself.
A less predictable question is whether the Tories will be able to win back their entrepreneurial provincials in short order or whether the sense of alienation and values betrayed will last, as it did after Black Wednesday, all the way to the next general election and beyond.