What Next for Tories? Whoever Is Leader Faces Threat of Farage

(Bloomberg) -- The Conservatives considered themselves Britain’s party of government, coming to power with promises to rescue the economy and restore stablility. Now, after the worst election result in their history, it’s more a case of who can come in to rescue them and restore their fortunes.

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The Tories, whose 14-year term was dominated by wrangling over leaving the European Union and the handling of the pandemic, face a fight to avoid a generation in opposition. That starts with finding a new chief who can reverse a surge in votes for Brexit architect Nigel Farage’s Reform UK.

Outgoing Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will stay on as Conservative leader for the immediate term to ensure a stable handover to a successor who will front the opposition in the UK Parliament. Kemi Badenoch, the departing business secretary who is on the right of the party, is the bookmakers’ favorite to win — and she has acknowledged the threat Farage poses.

The Reform leader was responsible for turning a Tory defeat into something closer to a wipeout. His populist, anti-immigration rhetoric tapped into the sentiments of voters on the right, seeing Reform finish second to Labour in swathes of districts. In some 140 seats that the Conservatives failed to hold, Reform won a larger vote share than the margin by which the Tories lost.

Farage now has a seat in parliament for the first time, providing him with a platform he hopes he can use to subsume the Tories. “Let the Conservative Party tear themselves apart in opposition,” Farage said after the election.

Most Conservative leadership contenders have said they would not allow Farage to join the Tory party and do not want to enter into an electoral pact with Reform. That includes former ministers Tom Tugendhat and James Cleverly from the center-right of the party, and Priti Patel and Robert Jenrick from the right wing. Only former Home Secretary Suella Braverman has said she would welcome Farage into the fold.

Yet if the right-wing vote remains split throughout the next parliament, with Reform solidifying its vote share, it will be difficult to see how the Tories can avoid another crushing defeat at the next election due five years from now.

That means the next Conservative leader will come under immense pressure to either find a way to vanquish Farage, or do what many in the party consider would be a deal with the devil.

Solving that dilemma will determine whether the Tories can become a competitive player in British politics again.

Many Tories digesting the huge losses took the view that the party is likely out of power for at least a decade, seeing the next general election as a mountain they are unlikely to climb.

However, some took a more optimistic view, arguing that new premier Keir Starmer faces a hard task to keep Labour voters happy given the scale of challenges facing his administration. His large parliamentary majority, they say, also obscures a smaller vote share and lack of enthusiasm among some people about his prospectus for government.

Sunak’s deputy, Oliver Dowden, in the meantime is likely to take a more public-facing role for the opposition, with his boss essentially becoming a titular figure in the coming weeks. The Tories will also have to appoint what will effectively be a caretaker shadow cabinet to make up the opposition front bench.

That task has been complicated by high-profile Tories losing their seats in the Labour landslide, including Defense Secretary Grant Shapps and Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons.

--With assistance from Ellen Milligan and Celia Bergin.

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