‘When’s Nigel coming back?’ Farage absence looms large over Reform UK conference

<span>Reform UK co-founder Nigel Farage addresses the Doncaster rally in a prerecorded video message.</span><span>Photograph: Adam Vaughan/EPA</span>
Reform UK co-founder Nigel Farage addresses the Doncaster rally in a prerecorded video message.Photograph: Adam Vaughan/EPA

On a sunny day at Doncaster racecourse, those gathered for Reform UK’s “biggest ever party conference” were presented with a dizzying array of pledges to cut tax and ­freeze “non-essential” immigration as its leading lights published a ­programme to “save Britain”. Yet even as the sun beamed down, the shadow of one absent figure seemed to hang over proceedings.

There was a jubilant mood at the South Yorkshire gathering as they cheered leader Richard Tice’s demands for an inquiry into vaccine harms, to break with the World Health Organization and to fire headteachers who refused to drop “critical race theory”.

Even from the conference stage, however, it was acknowledged there was one big unanswered question. David White, the Barnsley South ­candidate, admitted he is regularly asked: “When’s Nigel coming back?”

The leaders of Reform UK, which grew out of the Brexit party after the last election, are in optimistic mood after seizing 13% of the vote at the Wellingborough byelection, its best ever result. They believe it confirms national polling that suggests about one in 10 voters may back them.

Yet despite the progress, many Reform supporters – and concerned Tory MPs – feel that the addition of Nigel Farage could turn the party from a minor irritant to the Conservatives into an existential threat.

“I would hope he would come back,” said Stephen O’Neill, who had travelled with his wife, Sandra, from Glasgow. “I don’t think he’d be leader, but obviously Farage has got the ­charisma and the notoriety.” Sandra adds: “It needs publicity; that’s what they don’t get.”

Charlotte, from Gloucestershire, attracted to Reform because of a ­dislike of the main parties, was also keen for a Farage return. “I’d ­certainly like to see him,” she said. “He’s good at his job and getting the crowds together. He can give all the other leaders a good run for their money.”

Even among attendees at the conference, however, there was an acknowledgment that the addition of Farage could be double-edged.

“He’s a polarising character, but that’s because the media portray him as that,” said Colin, an ex-Tory voter from Lincolnshire who said his former party doesn’t represent his views any longer. “I would like him to come back and help Reform, but not necessarily stand as a candidate. The mainstream media would circle like vultures to destroy him.”

The policy platform announced in Doncaster is huge, from ending inheritance tax to replenishing the fishing fleet. Yet Tories on the right, sympathetic to many of the ideas, believe Farage is vital if Reform’s insurgency is to be significant.

“He’s the only one with any political nous,” said one former minister. He pointed to issues that seem too technical and remote, such as Northern Ireland’s Brexit mechanisms or the interest on quantitative easing reserves given to commercial banks.

Exclusive polling for the Observer by Opinium sheds more light on the Farage factor. Reform UK has 10% support, the level it has recorded for some time, and similar to the share of votes in the Wellingborough and Kingswood byelections that its leaders hailed as a breakthrough. The ­poll also suggests the return of Farage would make the party a bigger draw, even if the first past the post system means seizing a seat looks unlikely.

Tice has a net approval rating of -9, not bad in comparison with other leaders, but most voters do not have an opinion at all and he is still largely unknown outside his party. Farage is on -19% among voters as a whole, but most have a view of him. Among Tory voters still backing the party, 39% approve of Farage, suggesting Reform could do serious damage to Rishi Sunak should Farage take the helm. Of current Tory voters, 42% said Farage’s return would make them more favourable towards Reform.

It all leaves Farage with a dilemma. Should he once again return to fight a general election, which has seen him disappointed so many times before? Or should he, as he didrecently, spend his time on the money-­spinning media circuit in the US, commentating on his old ally Donald Trump’s campaign for the White House? The latter option also leaves open the bigger prize of joining a Tory party in search of leadership should it suffer a heavy general election loss. Farage remains tight-lipped.

The other issue for Reform is that there is also a split among those on the right who believe the Tory party is headed in the wrong direction. While some have opted for a fresh start with Reform, others want to stay within the Tory tent and pull it further right. This is the tactic being pursued by several MPs and former Tory donors.

To this group, Reform’s ­increasing support is the evidence they need to push Sunak in their direction. “I hear from constituents that they want the Conservative government to be more Conservative,” said one senior figure on the right. “They resent the drift in society. It’s a kind of modernism that they don’t like. They don’t like some of the characteristics of modern Britain, the atomisation of Britain and decline of traditional structures. That’s what they hate most and they think the government should do something about it. The Tory party just needs to be more Tory. Stop parroting the liberal left bollocks.”

Sunak’s team claim to be relaxed about Reform’s recent performances, even though it was achieved ­without Farage. “The one thing that ­surprised us in Wellingborough was that Reform didn’t do as well as we thought they might,” said one source. “I remember when you got Ukip getting 60% in Clacton in 2014. And it’s very clear now that a vote for Reform is essentially a vote for Keir Starmer, so those votes could come back to us [at a general election].”

As for the increasingly miserable liberal wing of the Tory party, they believe there is a confected element to the concerns expressed about the Reform threat. “These are not ­people panicking,” said one former cabinet minister. “These are people who want to turn the Tory party into Reform or some version of it, and are seizing on opportunities to do so. Anyone sensible recognises that you cannot simply add the Reform vote to the Tory vote and say, ‘look, it’s a new coalition’. You shed voters on the other side.

“People who say that this is evidence to show we should leave the European convention on human rights and start campaigning on that are being, I think the parliamentary word is, disingenuous.”