Nigel’s next adventure

However he gets on in the jungle, Nigel Farage is far from done with frontline politics, writes Paul Demarty

There are not a huge number of things Nigel Farage has in common with Matt Hancock.

Both are, in the broadest sense, reactionaries; but in terms of temperament, style and - let’s be honest - raw talent, they are rather different beasts altogether. Farage is a sharp, hell-raising trickster; Hancock a gormless yes-man. Farage is intelligent; Hancock stupid. Farage, despite his youthful Tory membership, has made most of his chaos from the cheap seats outside the Westminster mainstream, with Ukip, the Brexit Party and then Reform. Hancock is, by all appearances, the product of some laboratory experiment at Conservative HQ.

Yet they are now sharing one more quirk - a stint in the notorious jungle of ITV’s I’m a celebrity … get me out of here! Hancock had the Tory whip suspended for taking leave from his parliamentary duties; the same fate befell Nadine Dorries, late of mid-Bedfordshire, back in 2012. Farage has no such threat over him, of course: he is already, strictly professionally speaking, more or less a ‘media guy’. We shall see how he comes over, not that we anticipate a smooth ride.

Look stupid

It is always possible to make yourself look stupid on these things, of course, but one must accept that the incidence of such outcomes is rather overstated by the prudish worthies of the bourgeois media, frantically trying to maintain the facade of seriousness over the political circus they must cover. Dorries barely glanced off I’m a celebrity before returning happily to parliament for another decade. (The Tory leadership of the time indulged her, fearing an embarrassing defection to Ukip.) Hancock’s popularity likewise rose over his appearance (albeit from a rather low starting point!).

There is something about eating a marsupial’s anus on terrestrial television that is humanising, it seems; and so for the various other reality TV gambits of professional politicians we could mention - none of which, so far as we are aware, have proven career-ending. If Farage fails, it might be because he is too well suited to this sort of pantomime.

We cannot quite decide whether this comes at a good or bad time for him. He has been removed from the equation here in good old Blighty at exactly the moment that he might have had an opening. Sunak’s reshuffle clearly favoured Tory moderates; Suella Braverman finally succeeded in her “suicide by cop” routine, and her net replacement, David Cameron (or Baron Cameron of Chipping Norton - a name we might have satirically invented for him back in 2011, but is now his for real) is a totem for the ‘sensible’, post-Blair Toryism that people once thought was the wave of the future. Alas for Nigel! He is condemned to nibble on possum gonads, while Braverman cements her credentials as the standard-bearer for the Tory right.

Farage, of course, is not formally in the running to take that role. Yet he surely must fancy it. The Conservative Party has proven itself vulnerable to his sort - why not him? Michael Crick, who recently wrote a biography of him, made the point in the i newspaper:

From becoming a Tory member, it would be a simple step to finding a safe seat - possibly at a by-election … And, once an MP, Farage would not be able to resist standing for the Tory leadership - trying for an extraordinary hat-trick of party leaderships, having led both Ukip and the Brexit Party in the past.1

Practical matters

The prospect of Farage leading the Tories is intelligible for two kinds of reasons - practical and historical.

The practical matters first: the ‘natural party of government’ looks on course for a serious hiding next year, after which it will likely prove difficult for the sensible, sober men and women in grey suits to arrange a coronation of a sensible, sober leader (who anyway?). There will be an open field, and the next leader will likely be vulnerable. So, if Farage does manage to sneak in through a by-election, he will have a good shot at being in the mix - he is, after all, well known, and probably popular among the Tory membership at large, to whom the decision will ultimately devolve.

As for the strategic factor, it ought to be all too obvious, given the recent history. The strange obliviousness of the political and media establishment to the success of politicians subsequent to their appearances on various reality shows is a token of the same establishment’s incredulity at the success of Farage overall. It was not too long ago, after all, that Cameron could dismiss Farage’s Ukip as a bunch of “closet racists, fruitcakes and swivel-eyed loons”. Yet Farage had the last laugh. He said as much to the European parliament after his Brexit triumph - “you’re not laughing now!”

In 2014, it might have seemed that British politics was in a kind of bipartisan steady state. A Blairite Labour government had been replaced by a crypto-Blairite Tory-Liberal coalition. Both had administered the state favourably to capitalist and imperial interests, and meanwhile tacked between socially-liberal legislation and law-and-order, anti-scrounger, anti-immigrant rhetoric. It seemed, almost, to be working, despite the disasters of the Iraq war and the 2008 crisis, which in reality implicated both parties.

But an unexpected outright Tory victory in the 2015 election ruined everything - by, first of all, offering up the Labour leadership to Jeremy Corbyn, and then obliging Cameron to actually deliver the EU referendum. The victory for Brexit - as all ‘wrong’ referendum answers must - caused a political crisis; but in another respect it was an effect of a latent political crisis. With the total inability of the Tory Party to cohere around a clear lead, and the manifest unsuitability of the ‘second eleven’ under Corbyn, the Brexit settlement took years and two further general elections to push through. Boris Johnson’s commanding victory in 2019 lanced the Brexit boil at last, routed Labour (compromised by its collapse into ‘remainerism’ in its heartlands), and seemed to indicate an enormous expansion of the plebeian reactionary electorate.

Yet that did not put an end to the chaos at the top of the Tory Party, which has in stages been forced to abandon the more populist aspects of the Johnson programme. Despite no end of Blue-Labourish wonkery, it seems quite implausible that Starmer should capture that ground except by default. That is not least because it always was a fantasy. There were no ‘sunlit uplands’; Brexit would only ever transfer whatever sovereignty was formally devolved to the EU informally to the US, with the mere friction of the shift leaving Britain worse off.

The paralysis is ultimately therefore objective. Sabre-rattling Tories made an enemy of the EU - it had been all fun and games until the bill came due in 2016. Since the separation with the EU was finalised, we have had a hard lesson in the internationalisation of production, and indeed of military-political power. For all his bons mots and devil-may-care charm, Farage cannot magic food import replacements out of thin air.

State power

There is no way out from this bind but internationalism, which in turn requires the delegitimisation of the official ideologies and power centres of state power, in both liberal and conservative versions. Short of that, there is only the accusing gaze of counterfactual history - the better world we could have had, had we not been stabbed in the back. The very failure of Brexit - and national chauvinism more generally - to deliver on its dodgy promises ironically ensures a ready role for someone like Nigel Farage, should he want it, in frontline politics.

Still more ridiculous is the idea that the Conservatives, being a mainstream party, could not host such a character. Quite apart from its present state (is Farage meaningfully to the right of Suella Braverman?), the Tory Party has always been more hospitable to far-right ideology than it would like you to think, and has, since the 17th century, been a source of endless panics about immigration, resulting frequently in mob violence.

We wish Nigel a jolly good time eating unmentionables in the I’m a celebrity jungle - but if we want to prevent him making the leap, like Johnson, from trickster to prime minister, then we must first of all abandon any illusion that there is a firewall between ‘legitimate’, ‘mainstream’ politics and the far right. The famous Overton window can shift very rapidly - and in this case it already has.

  1. inews.co.uk/opinion/serious-chance-nigel-farage-rejoin-conservatives-work-way-very-top-2757358.↩︎