Nigel Farage is in some ways a victim of his own success. It was the political threat he posed during the coalition era that more than anything else caused David Cameron to pledge to hold an in-out referendum on EU membership if he won a majority. It is safe to say that without his persistence, we would never have left the European Union. Yet Farage is now politically redundant and what’s so strange about that is that he did it all to himself.
When Farage declared that the Brexit 'war is over' after the government announced its trade deal with the EU on Christmas Eve, my first thought was that he must have decided to pack the whole Reform party project in. That he had figured enough of what he had been fighting for all those years had come to fruition and he was laying down his arms against the Conservatives. When the Reform party launched a few weeks later anyhow, I wondered if Farage was being delusional. I’m still wondering, in fact.
The Brexit deal was the fork in the road for Nigel Farage, whether he understood that at the time or not. He could have said that the deal had stuffed Britain’s fishermen, that it didn’t get enough in other areas either and that we should have gone for a no-deal Brexit. This would have been a tough road for Farage to have gone down as he would have faced resistance from many Brexiteers just happy to see Brexit completed in some way. But it also would have given him a platform to have built from with his new project.
Instead, Farage has no solid reason for Reform to exist. He’s tried jumping on the anti-lockdown bandwagon, but the problem is one that it’s overcrowded as is and two, it is a time-limited thing anyhow, due to expire this summer. He’s tried being to the right of the Tories on illegal immigrant, yet the number of people who think Priti Patel isn’t sufficiently robust on this subject is very small. His latest gambit is to try and outflank the Tories on China scepticism; yet again, this is too niche to build an entirely separate political movement around.
Ukip, for whatever organisational problems it occasionally experienced, had a very clear goal in mind. It wanted to pressure both main political parties (but mainly the Conservatives) to adopt a more Eurosceptic approach and hold a referendum on EU membership. Ukip achieved all of this completely in a way that would have seemed impossible in 2010. Now ask yourself: what is the Reform party’s overriding mission?
I suppose you could say it is to make the Conservative party more culturally right-wing. I don’t see how this is a real weak spot for the Tories at present myself. Yes, lockdown caused some friction with potential Reform voters, but the timetable has evened this out and will eliminate it completely if it is seen through by the government on schedule. If the goal of Reform was to try and make the Tories more fiscally right-wing, this could both fill a gap and be something that would fit Farage’s libertarian persona. Yet he hasn’t tried this, mostly because he knows it isn’t immediately populist.
The main reason why the Reform party probably exists is to simply exist. In other words, to provide Farage with a platform to keep saying whatever he wants to say and to give the movement that was Ukip, then the Brexit party, a place to live. Yet in the same way I wonder why certain Lib Dem MPs can’t join the current Labour party, I have to ask why the leaders of this movement don’t just join the Conservative party now that it has become everything they ever wanted it to be.
Let’s put this another way: if in 2024 the polls were neck in neck between Labour and the Conservatives, would Farage really want to split the right-wing vote and possibly let Starmer become prime minister? Of course he wouldn’t. In fact, he’d almost certainly step aside like he did in 2019. Which again begs the question, what is the point of the Reform party then?
It is sad in a strange sort of way to me that Nigel Farage doesn’t seem to realise that when he declared that the 'war is over' on Brexit, he was giving up any chance of being truly politically relevant ever again. He lives on as a sort of tribute act to himself – the man Brexiteers will always admire for having done so much to achieve Brexit, yet who probably should have known when to shut up and adopt a new hobby. The Reform party has no reason to exist but will probably sail on anyhow. In the same fashion, Farage will keep doing his thing even though his movement doesn’t need him any longer.