Nigel Farage: whatever happened to him? You remember, the chap in the coat who used to go on about Europe and all that. Time was, you couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing him. These days, not so much.
Farage’s relative quiet in political circles says quite a lot about how easy a ride Boris Johnson is getting in his early days as PM. It is implicitly assumed by many commentators and editors that the advent of a Boris Johnson Government packed with ultra-committed Brexiters, directed by the Vote Leave team and seemingly hell-bent on No Deal will, in due course, render Farage and his Brexit Party irrelevant.
Almost all political chatter around Westminster that I hear takes as a given that a No Deal Tory Party will, at some point, (re)absorb all or most of the electorate currently supporting Farage’s lot.
That assumption, like all others, should be tested. And right now, there’s not much evidence to support it. A month into the Johnson premiership, the Brexit Party is still polling over 12 per cent on average. The latest polling this weekend by Opinium puts the BXP on 16 per cent; YouGov says 14 per cent. OK, that’s a long way from the numbers they were recording in the early summer, and around half of what they got in the European Parliament elections. But it’s still an awful lot of voters.
According to no less an analyst than Sir John Curtice, the Tories have already peeled away all the soft Brexit Party supporters that are easily won over. Anecdote suggests that those were mostly traditional Tories who went over to Farage in anger at the Brexit delay and at Theresa May. Now the Tories have a leader and a policy they like, they’ve gone home.
But what of those who remain? The resilience of the core Farage vote is striking and, I think, under-examined at Westminster. It should certainly cause some reflection over the idea (which I have myself entertained) that Johnson wants to be blocked in October so he can call a pre-Brexit mandate election to smash parliamentary resistance; such an election would in any case be an almighty gamble, but going into a pre-Brexit campaign with the Brexit Party still in robust condition would be remarkably bold.
What about the much-posited post-Brexit snap poll? Perhaps the theory is correct and that after a No Deal Brexit those 12 per cent would simply melt away and drain back into the Tory pool. Perhaps. But I spent a lot of time watching the rise of Ukip and the Tory response around the start of this decade. One of the things I remember is that a lot of Tories were always keen to believe in a Farage-killer, a single bold stroke that could make the man vanish and bring his voters back.
First it was the ‘cast-iron’ promise of a vote on the Lisbon Treaty. Then it was cutting immigration to tens of thousands. Later, David Cameron battled over the EU budget, tried to veto a treaty then finally promised an in/out referendum, all in the hope of solving the Conservatives’ Farage Problem. To state the obvious: none of it worked.
Maybe the act of Brexit itself will finally banish Nigel Farage. But that is betting an awful lot on the frailty of a man who has overturned Westminster wisdom time and time again.
I say this with no great admiration but Nigel Farage is the most consequential politician of his generation: without him, Britain would not today be leaving the EU. I do not think he can simply be wished away by Tories enjoying some Johnsonian bombast.
Of course, first-past-the-post gives the Tories some defence against Faragists: 3 million votes in 2015 produced one Ukip seat. Farage himself is the most famous failed parliamentary candidate the country has ever known. But votes are votes and the Farage party could surely complicate Tory attempts to win over large numbers of Leave-leaning voters in northern Labour seats.
There is no love between Vote Leave and Team Farage but here is a simple truth: each needed the other in June 2016. Leave won because they fought on the same side. Could a Tory strategy based on reuniting the electoral coalition of the Brexit vote hope to succeed without some kind of deal or partnership with Farage?
Keep watching that Brexit Party poll number, and do not be surprised if there is yet another chapter in the Farage story to come.