Farage Plots Path to Power With Trump-Style Takeover of Britain’s Tories

(Bloomberg) -- Nigel Farage is in his element. With Eminem’s Without Me blasting and pyrotechnics flaring, the engineer of Brexit, friend of Donald Trump and now key protagonist in Britain’s election is welcomed like a hero.

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As he walks into a packed auditorium in Clacton, a deprived town on England’s east coast where polls suggest he will become its member of the UK Parliament next week, the 60-year-old disruptor is greeted by cheers and hoots. He regales them with gags about his fondness for beer and naked appearance on a TV reality show, all while mocking his opponents.

Farage’s chummy, English love-in disguises a threat to the political establishment that just got bigger.

While the Labour Party looks set for a landslide victory on July 4, some in the incumbent governing Conservatives are growing more concerned that the anti-immigrant, anti-green Farage could stage a Trump-style grassroots takeover of their party, the UK’s closest version of the Republicans.

In the UK, the question is what happens to the Conservatives after years of chaos that saw five prime ministers since the Brexit vote split the nation in 2016. The votes Farage’s Reform Party is projected to pick up could turn a Tory defeat into an unprecedented wipeout by peeling off right-wing voters energized by issues such as immigration.


— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) June 25, 2024

When Farage entered the election campaign, he told broadcaster ITV he had no intention of joining the Conservatives, and that “the better thing to do would be to take it over.” He’s doubled down on that on the campaign trail. “They may be in opposition, but they won’t be the opposition,” he told the gathered crowd at the Prince’s Theatre in Clacton on June 18.

According to Bloomberg’s poll of polls, Reform has surged to almost 16% versus 20% for the Conservatives and Labour way ahead on more than 40%. In the UK electoral system, though, that’s no guarantee of seats in the House of Commons. When Farage last stood for one, in 2015, he gained almost a third of the votes and was beaten by a Conservative.

His comments during the latest campaign blaming the European Union and NATO for “provoking” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine haven’t helped, though. It also remains to be seen if an undercover investigation by broadcaster Channel 4 that revealed Reform campaigners in Clacton making racist and homophobic slurs dents the party’s popularity.

But Farage has been somewhat of a wildcard for the Conservatives, or Tories, in recent years. After the Brexit vote he claimed he’d got his “country back” and it was time for a rest. He relished his role as the UK’s backseat political driver, feted by former Trump strategist Steve Bannon. Last year, he drew impromptu crowds at the Conservative Party conference.

Clacton also hasn’t been shy to embrace the right of UK politics. The town was one of the UK’s most ardent supporters of Brexit, with almost 70% of the area voting to leave the EU in 2016. Its local lawmaker at the time was from the UK Independence Party, which was then led by Farage.

Support for Reform is “unequivocally terrible for the Conservatives,” said Ben Ansell, politics professor at Nuffield College, Oxford University. Yet taking over the party would initially require backing from Conservative MPs, and “I don’t think a post-calamity Tory party will be particularly more right wing than it is now,” he said.

Farage crashing into the election campaign was just the outcome Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, the Tory leader, wanted to avoid when he called a snap vote in mid-May. Conservative lawmakers and advisers see the prospect of Farage attempting a coup as perhaps their gravest concern for the next five years.

His party is deliberately named after the Reform Party of Canada, which helped push the Canadian Conservatives into a historic electoral wipeout in 1993, before taking it over entirely. “They are the model,” Farage told Bloomberg in Clacton, adding that he was inspired by his interactions with former Canadian Reform leaders.

It’s also hard to ignore the parallels with Trump and the Republicans. In the Clacton auditorium, Farage banters back and forth with the audience. Like Trump, he has nicknames for his opponents; “Slippery Sunak” for the prime minister, and “Call Me Dave” for David Cameron, the former premier who staged the Brexit referendum in a failed attempt to unite behind EU membership and snuff out the threat of Farage.

The next Tory leadership contest — likely to take place in the summer if Sunak loses the election as expected — will see each contender asked if they’d welcome Farage into the party, one senior Conservative said.

Of the possible candidates to lead the Tories in opposition, only Suella Braverman, the former home secretary, has indicated she’d be willing to accept the Reform leader into the fold. All the other likely candidates would not support him joining, people familiar with their thinking said.

Still, there are doubts over whether that position will hold. Some seven in 10 Tory members want Farage in their party, according to a survey by the website Conservative Home. Another poll in March had Farage as the most popular choice to replace Sunak as leader at 27%.

Braverman was fired by Sunak last year after being accused of emboldening a far-right protest by criticizing the policing of pro-Palestinian marches. She told the Times that Reform and the Conservatives should find a way to work together. “I would welcome Nigel into the Conservative Party,” she told the newspaper. “There’s not much difference really between him and many of the policies that we stand for.”

Farage has used that as ammunition in his campaign. He told the audience in Clacton that the Conservatives were divided by those proposing a political marriage and those opposed to him ever joining the party.

Business Secretary Kemi Badenoch, who is a bookmaker favorite to succeed Sunak as Conservative leader after the election, has ruled out serving with Farage. “Why would you welcome someone into your organization when they say they want to destroy it?” she told GB News, where Farage until recently hosted a talkshow.

But even if the next Tory leader does keep Farage out, the question doesn’t go away in the next election cycle. Pressure to do a deal with Reform would grow in the face of a potential second consecutive landslide for Labour, one veteran Conservative aide said.

So far, Reform’s campaign has focused on the promise of tax cuts, scrapping environmental targets, and above all, reducing immigration to “net zero.” It’s also tapped into the European trend of increasing popularity among youth, the rise of the so-called Gen Z right wingers.

Reform is running a slick TikTok campaign and talking up concerns about the high cost of housing and rents. The party’s support among the 18-24 bracket is still dwarfed by Labour’s, but has grown faster than any other party’s in recent weeks. And just like at the event in Clacton, the theme tune for the campaign has been the line from rapper Eminem: “Cause we need a little controversy.”

“Just as is happening in Europe, there is a new phenomenon racing through the politics,” Farage said when he launched his campaign. “I promise you, something is happening out there.”

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