How to stop Nigel Farage becoming Prime Minister

Opponents of the new populist right need to start taking the fight to them

The rise of the right in the European Parliament elections earlier this month can only really have come as a surprise to those who were not paying attention. Voters across the EU went to the polls amid widespread frustration with the political establishment, expressed through farmers’ protests that brought major cities to a halt.

In France, Emmanuel Macron immediately dissolved his country’s parliament and announced snap legislative elections after Marine Le Pen’s right-wing populist National Rally party (NR) won more than double the share of the president’s centrist alliance.

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Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy topped the European polls there; Alternative for Germany (AfD) came second behind the country’s centre-right CDU; and Belgium’s prime minister resigned after his party’s defeat to Flemish separatists. Right-wing populist parties also came first in Austria and second in the Netherlands.

Nigel Farage has made clear he intends some form of hostile takeover of the Conservative party (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)Nigel Farage has made clear he intends some form of hostile takeover of the Conservative party (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)
Nigel Farage has made clear he intends some form of hostile takeover of the Conservative party (Picture: Peter Summers/Getty Images)
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Challenging conventional wisdom

The appeal of this new right extends beyond immigration. The European farmers’ protests demonstrate a groundswell of resistance to net zero-inspired policies. Many voters simply do not accept there is a “climate emergency”, or that, if there is such a crisis, it should threaten their livelihoods, cause them great expense or direct how they can live their lives.

Voting for these parties is not, as conventional wisdom would have it, merely the preserve of elderly and bewildered xenophobes. In Germany, the collapse in support for the Greens has been particularly pronounced among the under-30s.

As voters have been becoming increasingly frustrated with what they perceive as a lumpen, homogenous and technocratic centre ground, parties on the populist right have tried to detoxify and distance themselves from far-right extremists.

Nazi war criminals

Marine Le Pen renamed France’s National Front as National Rally and expelled far-right extremists, including her own father, after taking over the party in 2011. When she was 15, Meloni joined the Italian Social Movement – a party founded by supporters of Italy’s wartime fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Since taking office, she has moved markedly towards the centre ground.

Founded in 2013, Germany’s AfD has perhaps the biggest problem with extremism. One senior candidate in the European Parliament elections caused a storm when he recently tried to insist that not all members of the Nazi SS were war criminals.

With Labour likely to win a landslide in next month’s general election, the UK appears to be an outlier in this European move to the right. But the forces shaping politics on the Continent are at work here too. Sir Keir Starmer will be swept into office on a wave of apathy rather than enthusiasm. After 14 years riven with internal division, everyone can see the Tories are done and that it is the other team’s turn.

Farage feels lucky

Just as they were surprised by the rise of the right in Europe, many people were taken aback when Nigel Farage’s right-wing populist Reform UK party crept ahead of the Conservatives in one opinion poll last week. Seven-times loser Farage clearly believes it will be eighth time lucky, having belatedly thrown his hat into the ring in the Essex constituency of Clacton. He may well be right.

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But even if they win no seats at all, Reform will take millions of votes from the Tories, turning a very bad night for them on July 4 into a catastrophic one. Some polls predict the Conservatives could be reduced to fewer than 100 seats. Farage has already made clear his intention to carry out some form of hostile takeover of the party in the aftermath of its defeat, with a new “centre right” opposition led directly or indirectly by him.

And as he launched Reform’s “contract” with the electorate, he set his sights on entering Downing Street in five years’ time. This election, he said, would be Reform’s “first big push”, before he pitches himself to succeed Starmer in 2029. After a brief honeymoon, Starmer could find Labour support ebbing away to Farage in much the same way as Tory support is doing now.

Shifting political tectonics

To some this might seem far-fetched, preposterous even. But it was only a few weeks ago that a French government led by NR’s 28-year-old president Jordan Bardella would have seemed far-fetched. Now it appears almost likely.

There has clearly been a tectonic shift in politics across Europe. A recalibration is taking place as the old battlelines of left and right are being redrawn. Is it sustainable to describe parties as “far-right” when they are commanding the support of more than 15 per cent of the electorate?

Frustration with established political parties means voters are increasingly undeterred by the cordon sanitaire terms such as “inflammatory” might previously have put around these insurgents, as they in turn try to distance themselves from their most unsavoury supporters.

The stark reality is that these populists are expressing widely held reservations over the race to net zero and levels of net migration. We must no longer kid ourselves these reservations do not exist.

In Scotland, with our falling population, we need more immigration, but at a UK-wide level there are concerns that today’s levels are unsustainable. Perhaps this could be the moment when the Scottish Conservatives break away from the party south of the Border.

Farage and his ilk are in the ascendancy for now. No amount of name calling or milk-shake throwing will make them go away. Their opponents have to take voters as they are – they cannot dissolve the electorate and appoint a new one.

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The way to defeat Farage is through winning the battle of ideas in the court of public opinion. Inspirational leaders who can connect with voters must step forward to make the case for immigration and the many benefits it brings, and for the need to achieve net zero. Isn’t that how politics is supposed to work?

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