The Brexit architect wields more power outside the party than within
At this week’s Conservative Party Conference, the only real star wasn’t a cabinet minister, an MP, or even a party member — it was Nigel Farage. The former Ukip leader — architect of Brexit and perpetual thorn in the side to the Conservatives — rocked up to Manchester and largely stole the show. Crowds followed him around, begging for photos. They swamped any event at which he was expected, and he revelled in the attention.
It was striking compared to the apathy surrounding key Tory figures. Cabinet ministers swept through the Midland Hotel unbothered by selfie hunters, and perhaps only Liz Truss’ Rally for Growth got similar amounts of attention — though most of that could be explained by morbid curiosity. Farage’s reputation seems to outstrip that of anyone among the Tory base, especially now Boris Johnson has sunk into ignominy.
Farage’s presence has renewed questions about his formal relationship with the party. Some talked up the idea of him rejoining, maybe even seeking election. Ministers said that they would let him return — but the man himself pulled the trump card, saying he had no interest in doing so while getting in a few jabs about their current listlessness.
This feels like the most that they will get from him. There is no real reason for Farage to join the Tory Party. He can get what he wants from outside, without having to make even the pretence of conciliation. He can dangle the prospect of his support, and in turn the voters who back him, without having to play nice with more liberal Tories or dance to any sort of party line.
Farage has ultimately always been a disruptor. When he came to Ukip, he hijacked it to make his own name, letting it wither when it no longer suited him. He did the same with the Brexit Party, and as it merged into Reform UK. He’d bristle at the control that a Tory Party would want to exert over him, and ultimately seems to have little interest in the formal power it could offer him. He seems to much prefer the acclaim — and the income — he can achieve as a media gadfly, compared to slugging around the Commons.
As the Tory Party looks set to go into opposition, and on a journey of self-discovery, Farage is unlikely to want the drudgery of being a backbench MP. He’d much rather hover around the outside of the party, soaking up plaudits from his fans and flexing his popularity. The Tories are once again already dancing to his tune on many issues: he has little to gain from a reconciliation with them.
He is unlikely to be the only one taking this tack. Johnson has his columns and speeches to play the role of The King over the Water. Sniping from the sidelines for vast amounts of money is far more fun than trying to make things work inside the tent. Liz Truss will remain as an MP, but it is more likely that she will hector from the sidelines (as she did at the conference) than seek a return to the front line.
For the Tories, this presents a problem. Critics who want something can be bought off. The sniff of a Red Box, or a seat in the Lords, can help remind them of the virtue of silence. Those who feel they have nothing to gain can create a lot more mischief.
If Farage had wanted to play ball and be a Tory MP he could have done so 30 years ago. Everything he has achieved has come from being their closest enemy — one they can neither shut up or destroy. Now he senses an opportunity to influence them again, and that grows stronger if he stays outside. After all, if you can beat them, why join them?