Senior Tories line up to denounce Nigel Farage’s defence of Putin’s war

<span>Nigel Farage announces his party's manifesto in Merthyr Tydfil on 17 June.</span><span>Photograph: EPA</span>
Nigel Farage announces his party's manifesto in Merthyr Tydfil on 17 June.Photograph: EPA

Rishi Sunak and a string of senior Conservatives have condemned Nigel Farage for claiming the west provoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine, amid a growing internal Tory battle over how to deal with the Reform UK leader.

The prime minister accused Farage of playing “into Putin’s hands” after he made the claim in a BBC Panorama interview on Friday, in which he linked Nato and EU expansion to the conflict in eastern Europe. Tom Tugendhat, the security minister went further, telling the Observer: “It doesn’t matter whether you’re Jeremy Corbyn or Nigel Farage – if you parrot the Kremlin’s lies, you cannot be trusted with our national security.”

Home secretary James Cleverly also criticised the comments, adding that Farage wanted to “destroy our party”. Ben Wallace, a former defence secretary, described Farage as a “pub bore”. Labour leader Keir Starmer also condemned Farage’s comments as “disgraceful”.

The Tories are desperate to halt the huge threat Reform UK poses to them, in some scenarios reducing their seats in the next parliament to below 100. The latest Opinium poll for the Observer gives Labour a 20-point lead over the Tories. It shows Reform only four points behind the Conservatives, on 16% of the vote

“Clear blue water still exists between the Conservatives and Reform, but Rishi Sunak will balk at a quarter of 2019 Tory voters backing Nigel Farage’s party,” said James Crouch, head of policy and public affairs at Opinium.

The comments from Farage were also seized upon by the Conservatives’ liberal wing, who fear that figures on the right of the party will encourage him to join the Tories after the election. “This is a very revealing comment showing the mask slipping,” said Damian Green, chair of the One Nation caucus. “Showing sympathy for a murderous tyrant who has killed hundreds of thousands of his own people is not the position of a mainstream democratic politician.”

There is a huge split among the Tories over Farage – part of a wider battle over the direction of the party, which is set to burst into the open the moment the election campaign is over. Some senior Conservatives fear the party could break in two, especially if a new leader opens the door to Farage joining. One former cabinet minister said he now feared “a fissure” after the election.

Tories on the liberal wing are concerned that in the heat of a leadership election, the main candidates may feel compelled to commit to allowing Farage in to appease the party membership. Tory moderates have been largely holding their tongues during the campaign, which has seen the Conservatives focus on immigration to unite the right vote. That tactic was brutally undermined by Farage’s re-entry as Reform UK’s leader.

Moderate MPs say they have been concentrating on limiting the damage with local campaigning and trying to keep the party in the centre ground as far as possible. They have also been examining what the party may look like after the election based on current polling and are confident that “no matter what the outcome”, the party can be stopped from lurching to the right in opposition.

Some senior figures have been particularly worried about the party’s lack of appeal to young voters, which was already evident but may have been exacerbated by policies such as the return of national service, designed to appeal to older voters considering a vote for Reform UK.

With less than a fortnight to polling day, morale in the party’s campaign has also taken a huge hit over two issues. Firstly, the revelations that three people linked to the Conservatives are subject to Gambling Commission inquiries over alleged betting relating to the election date has caused serious anger.

With candidates braced for further revelations, Sunak has refused to disclose how many Tories are under investigation. The party has said it will not “give a running commentary”, but it has led to ministers and candidates being asked about the inquiry during the crucial last weeks of the campaign. Sunak has said that anyone found to have broken the rules would “not only face the full consequences of the law but I will ensure that they are booted out of the Conservative Party, too”.

The second issue to hit morale has been the re­allocation of resources at Conservative campaign headquarters to defend safer seats, apparently now considered marginal according to the latest polling. It has led to some internal concerns about giving up swathes of the so-called red wall captured by Boris Johnson in 2019, though the accusation is rejected by the party.

Money is also said to be an issue. Some Tory candidates have said they have struggled for resources, while some regular donors have opted to sit out the 2024 contest. A fund­raising event at London’s exclusive Hurlingham Club last week took place without the prime minister, who instead sent a video message. The star turn of the evening was business secretary Kemi Badenoch, seen as a frontrunner for the leadership should the Tories crash to defeat. Several major donors did attend the event.