Nigel Farage has blown his chance to destroy the Conservatives

Nigel Farage
Nigel Farage

In terms of personal performance, Rishi Sunak has had a rubbish start to the election campaign. Yesterday he was the wally without a brolly, today he was weak in radio interviews. But this is all so much noise: the only significant “event” to happen so far has just gone hugely in his favour.

Nigel Farage has announced that he will not be standing or leading the Reform party in the general election, putting his non-combatant status down to a clash with his work on the US presidential election. Yet, if anything, an early summer contest in the UK should have cleared a potential diary clash on that score and allowed him to participate in both.

It seems far more likely that Sunak’s “ambush” election, compressing the time available for Farage to get an undercooked Reform operation into shape, has put the former UKIP leader off.

While he says he will do his “bit” to campaign for Reform and support its leader Richard Tice, the harsh reality is that he has also just sent out a signal to millions of right-wing voters that he doesn’t have faith in the brand or its prospects.

Small parties get relentlessly squeezed in British general elections, which very quickly turn into quasi-presidential contests presenting the public with a binary choice. Without the X-factor that Farage could have brought to the party – as well as his generally phenomenal performance levels – we should now expect Reform’s ratings to ebb away.

To imagine Reform winning seats under the first past the post system required a willing suspension of disbelief among the electorate. Farage could have secured that. Tice will not. Policies that would have fizzed in the hands of Farage – leaving the ECHR, scrapping the Climate Change Act, abandoning the Windsor Framework holding Northern Ireland in the grip of the EU – will struggle to command much attention without him.

Without much in the way of a ground game at its disposal, Reform’s capacity to wage the air war is also now hugely compromised. Sceptics about Tory prospects may think that the biggest impact will simply be to further lower the turnout among right-of-centre people. But the vacuum on the right will play perfectly into Tory negative campaigning about the threat posed by Labour.

Voters with incumbent Conservative MPs with majorities of 10,000 to 20,000 will be faced with the knowledge that if they sit the contest out the result will be to hand Labour a landslide rather than merely a comfortable win. Many will surely end up holding their noses and putting their crosses in the usual box instead.

Had Nigel Farage thrown himself into the 2024 general election with all the campaigning brio at his disposal then the Conservative & Unionist Party could have been looking at a Canada-style extinction event. Now it looks like a mere run-of-the-mill drubbing is in prospect.