Mon, 22 July 2024

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By Ben Guerin
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Enter the Fox: How Nigel Farage turned the 2024 election on its head

7 min read

Nigel Farage said at first it wasn’t the right time to stand; it turned out to be the best time. Harriet Symonds reports on how he finally won a seat in parliament – and what he does now

After eight attempts at standing for Parliament, Nigel Farage has finally succeeded. But will it give him the platform to emulate his close friend Donald Trump and reshape the right of his nation’s politics?

In an election without Boris Johnson, the way was clear for Farage to take centre stage and he certainly made the most of the opportunity.

Farage’s return “really put a rocket ship under the entire campaign”, says one regional Reform organiser. “I’ve never known anything like it.”

Another party official, Noel Matthews, coos: “If I knew what it was that he has and others don’t, I would bottle it, sell it, and make a fortune.”

But can Farage – who at one point claimed he was on course to overtake the Conservatives – stay centre stage with just five Reform MPs out of 650? 

“We are waging an air war,” says Reform’s co-deputy leader Dr David Bull. During the election, Reform held big Trump-style rallies for their supporters and streamed them online in a bid to project the notion of a political revolt. 

Farage’s biggest rally during the campaign was to a crowd of 5,000 of the party’s faithful at the Birmingham NEC. He was welcomed on stage to chants of “Nigel!” and supporters wearing T-shirts and masks with his face on. The party’s chief executive, Paul Oakden, opened the event saying: “Make Britain great again.”

Giles Watling, who was the MP for Clacton until he was ousted by Farage, tells The House “it’s a personality cult that’s been created” around his political rival, describing the events as “chilling” and a “very un-British way of doing things”.

He also says the events are “reminiscent of the big rallies at Nuremberg’’ where Adolf Hitler addressed supporters of the Nazi Party. “There may be no evil intent, but it feels wrong and bad,” the former MP adds. 

In addition to national rallies, the Reform leader hosted smaller events at private members’ clubs in Clacton – although “the golf club refused to have him”, says Watling.

One Tory MP tells The House the Conservatives are simply unable to compete with Farage’s “cult” following. “If I did something, or even if Rishi Sunak did something, he wouldn’t get 300 people there.”

Keiron McGill, who oversees Reform’s Essex operation, says he has “absolutely no control over what Nigel does”. Farage’s team ran an almost totally separate national campaign that was arguably more about him than it was about Reform. The tactic throughout was to ensure Farage was cheered on by huge crowds at all times, with the campaign launch in Clacton described as “the second coming” by the party’s co-deputy leader Ben Habib.

“When we left, I had to sign people’s T-shirts – that’s not normal in politics,” says David Bull. “The idea that in Clacton people were hanging off bridges, shouting ‘Nigel we love you’ – we were greeted like a very ageing boy band.”

The campaign gained momentum, although only one poll showed them ahead of the Tories and support dipped towards the end. It was thought this was in part because of a host of candidates making racist and other offensive comments.

Matthews, Reform’s national organiser with oversight of all candidates, reveals that the morning after Sunak called the election he was approached by and paid them £144k to carry out candidate checks for the party. “They came to me in particular and said, ‘we’ve got a good idea how to do this to get it done very quickly’. We said ‘yes’. It seemed like it was going to be a really comprehensive solution for us in the time that we had.”

Matthews says they set up “shared resources’’ to help vet candidates, but a couple of days later it became clear that the company had done “nothing”. 

Sunak caught out Farage and Reform by calling a snap election, leaving the party with a reduced number of candidates on polling day after a barrage of candidate scandal. Now in Parliament, Farage recognises he must “democratise the party” but still plans to sue the vetting boss. However, the company claims it had been working on a timeline of an autumn election.

The party also struggled with little to no resources for local campaigns, leading many candidates to crowdfund for cash. “We are on a shoestring. Everything, certainly for my campaign, has been self-funded. We have received nothing at all,” reveals one Reform candidate. 

“We expect that the candidates do the job that’s required of them. It’s a hands-off approach,” says McGill. “It’s been more about smart campaigning, rather than extensive campaigning backed by huge financial resources.”

But Farage has been more than comfortable, outspending his Conservative candidate in Clacton by “about 4 or 5/1”.

“We don’t have the money the big parties have and that’s always been a problem,” explains Bull. “But it’s not necessarily about how much money you have – it’s how you spend it.” 

Conservative MPs say they hardly saw or heard from their local Reform candidates. One tells The House they only realised their constituency’s Reform candidate was real when she called the pub to book a campaign event – but the landlord was a Tory councillor!

It’s been relatively easy for Reform to build momentum over the campaign, but now that Farage is in Parliament it’s less certain how the arch-Brexiteer stays relevant – constrained from jetting off to the States and with a Starmer “supermajority” at large. Farage will have few other options but to place himself in the middle of the Conservative leadership election.

Conservative figures have criticised the party for not embracing him sooner. “They are potentially going to pay the consequences for that,” warned Lord Marland, a Conservative Party donor, ahead of the party’s historic defeat. “I think it’s always a mistake not to bind people on the right of centre,” he added. 

Farage will seek out ways to cause mischief for the Tories, the party’s leadership contest presenting a prime opportunity. But he has done himself no favours standing candidates against “natural allies” in the Conservative Party, many of whom lost their seats. Former Conservative MPs such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, Andrea Jenkyns and Liz Truss are no longer in Parliament to help bridge relationships between the two parties. 


One Conservative MP calls Farage an “idiot” for his short-sightedness and points out they’ve ended up with a parliamentary Conservative Party “full of One-Nationers who don’t like him”.  An MP who lost his seat says: “The one big upside is I won’t have to be in Westminster with Nigel.”

The irony is all this might have been avoided if Sunak had accepted Farage’s olive branch of an electoral deal that could have saved the party from such a humiliating defeat.

A senior Reform source says he “won’t shed any tears” over the implosion of the Tory Party. “I personally did not get into politics to have any sort of alliance with the Conservatives.”

There is also speculation over whether Farage could still jet off for a summer in the States to help Trump fight his presidential campaign. A source who worked with Trump tells The House there’s “lots of talk” over what Farage might do, revealing: “He’s expected to make some flying visits and speak at the odd rally.” A Reform source agrees: “He will still be doing that, albeit at a very reduced nature.”

Had Farage lost in Clacton, it is likely he would have flown over to the States for the presidential campaign, even accepting a job from Trump. 

“I think he’ll want to support Donald Trump in any way that’s feasible,” says another Reform source, adding: “Farage is one of the only people Trump actually takes advice from and listens to.”

A source who used to work for Trump tells The House “he’s not heard” whether Farage still plans to go to the States, while another insider suspects he “hasn’t thought that far ahead yet”.

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