The Cabinet reshuffle that brought back David Cameron was supposed to reunite the Tory “sensibles”, reassure centre-ground voters and put Rishi Sunak on course for a general election victory next year. If one could liken it to a film scene it would be the end of The Railway Children when the young Jenny Agutter runs along the platform shouting “daddy, my daddy” before throwing herself into the arms of her father, freshly returned from a spell in political disgrace.
Unfortunately for Sunak, a different film scene now stalks the minds of Conservative MPs – the one in The Shining where Jack Nicholson smashes in a door panel with an axe, pushes his manically expressive face through and declares: “Here’s Johnny!”
“Here’s Nigel!” is the cry that is likely to send a chill down the collective spine of the Conservative parliamentary party in ten days or so, when Nigel Farage returns from his sojourn in the I’m A Celebrity jungle. Because the man they thought they had securely trapped in the cellar of British politics after implementing Brexit has refused to fade away. Instead, he has become a brighter star with broader appeal and may even be on the brink of attaining national treasure status.
And he will be coming home to a political context which seems tailor-made for him. The Prime Minister’s credibility on the totemic issue of controlling immigration – both legal and illegal – is in shreds. The Reform UK party, of which Farage is president, is suddenly chalking up double figure poll ratings, while Tory scores are in the low 20s.
It had been widely assumed that Farage’s days in frontline politics were over – not least because he told us all so in an interview with The Sunday Telegraph in March 2021, declaring: “I know I’ve come back once or twice when people thought I’d gone, but this is it. It’s done. It’s over.”
As someone who worked with him and witnessed various departures and comebacks during the Brexit campaigning years, I never found that wholly convincing. And sure enough, some months ago talk began in the usual networks of Nigel telling friends he now believed he had “one last shot” at the political big time.
His preferred scenario was the advent of a PR electoral system for Westminster that might be part of a Labour-Lib Dem coalition deal after the next election. But now the route is much more straightforward: knock even bigger lumps out of the Conservatives by driving Reform on to 15 and even 20 per cent vote shares, then inspect the rubble post-election and decide whether conducting a reverse takeover of the twitching Tory corpse or replacing the party altogether as the main Right-of-centre grouping looks the better bet.
One jibe Farage has found it hard to deal with is that he has stood for Parliament seven times and never been elected. Yet friends have persuaded him to look at things differently and consider himself the pre-eminent “gamechanger” of British politics. It was his campaigning at the head of Ukip that forced Cameron to offer an In/Out referendum on the EU, after all. That ended up doing for Dave first time around.
And then it was Farage’s brilliant convening of the Brexit Party and crushing of the Tory vote share down to nine per cent in the 2019 Euro-elections that forced Conservative MPs to dump Theresa May and install Boris Johnson to “Get Brexit Done”.
So if the great ringmaster of the maverick Right decides, as I expect him to, that engaging in politics as a blood sport beats TV presenting in the run-up to the next general election then Sunak’s Conservatives should prepare less for a defeat and more for total annihilation.