The time is right for Nigel Farage to cause mayhem, warns Euan McColm - and don't forget his fellow populist Alex Salmond

The timing could not have been more perfect for Nigel Farage. Moments before Thursday evening’s ITV debate between representatives of the UK’s seven largest parties, a new opinion poll dropped which showed not only that things continued to get worse for the Tories but that Farage’s Reform party had overtaken them.

This jaw–dropping development allowed Farage, live on prime time television, to proclaim himself the true leader of the opposition to a future Labour government.

The former UKIP leader developed this idea in interviews the following day when he repeatedly spoke of the need for a new “centre right” force in British politics. And if Farage had to be the man to lead that movement, then so be it.

It was all terribly noble.

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A couple of things: first, if you reckon Farage is on the “centre right” then your political compass is on the fritz and, second, the Reform leader isn’t really going to be leader of the second largest party in the House of Commons after July 4.

The result of the YouGov poll which put Reform on 19 per cent to the Conservatives’ 18 was within the margin of error which, in fact, makes them neck and neck. But more than that, support for Reform may be high but the first–past–the–post system won’t help it. As UKIP found in the past, massive poll ratings don’t guarantee seats.

Reform, of course, has already won a national election in the UK. In its previously incarnation – the Brexit Party – it took 29 seats in the 2019 European parliamentary election while the Tories managed a miserable four. But that was under a proportional representation system that better took into account the spread of the Brexit Party vote.

Farage looks likely to win in Clacton next month and, finally, realise his ambition to become an MP. He is unlikely to have enough Reform Party colleagues for him to be named leader of the official opposition but surely nobody would bet against him quickly becoming the most influential opposition politician at Westminster.

Asked repeatedly whether he might, one day, wish to become leader of the Conservative Party, Farage is all “who me?”. His current version of events is that the Tories are finished and only Reform can provide real opposition to what everyone expects to be a Labour government with a whopping majority.

But the Conservative Party isn’t dead, it’s just very ill. Its support atrophies by the day but that doesn’t mean the condition is terminal. In 2019, the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had a disastrous election but now, just five years later, the talk is of whether Sir Keir Starmer will win a “supermajority”.

The Tories will revive. But what shape that rejuvenated party will take is not yet clear.

What is currently clear is that the Conservative Party is chasing a dwindling, ageing and reactionary section of the electorate. It is possible – indeed, likely – that after July 4 there will be precious few centre ground Tory MPs left standing. The right–wing populists who have brought the party to its knees will feel emboldened to do more of the same.

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A Tory opposition under the leadership of Suella Braverman, say, or Priti Patel, would be all about the screeching dog–whistle.

And, sure, a large majority would offer Starmer a degree of protection from opposition attacks within the Commons where getting things done is a numbers game but Labour should not underestimate the damage a populist opposition could do to the Starmer project.

Labour has been, understandably, cautious throughout the General Election campaign (and for a long time before). Back in 2019, Corbyn promised the completely unachievable in terms of spending and voters – never as daft as some politicians think – saw through it all. Starmer has been careful not to over–promise.

So, while Labour will swiftly set about implementing big attention–grabbing policies – putting VAT on private school fees, for example – nobody expects that a change of government will mean the immediate solution of the many problems we’re all now facing.

A new Labour government, cautious in its approach – though financial necessity – would be the perfect prey for Farage, a master at taking his argument out of the stuffy debating chamber and into communities.

Wouldn’t a battered and discombobulated Tory Party be vulnerable to the approaches of Farage, a man who has no compunction about fighting as dirtily as is necessary?

I will be astonished if, having won Clacton as the Reform candidate, Farage does not soon shift his allegiance to the Conservatives. It is entirely possible that he could, within the year, be both leader of the Tories and one good general election result away from becoming Prime Minister.

Talking of exhausting populist nationalists we thought we’d seen the back of, Alex Salmond is another old bruiser who stands to benefit from political turmoil in the months to come.

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The SNP’s difficulties stand to get worse as the Police Scotland investigation into allegations surrounding handling of party finances draws to a close.

Just as Farage has a message for the right in England that they have been let down by the Tories, soon Salmond may have a similar story to tell Scottish nationalists.

Salmond is likely to be elected as an MSP for Alba in 2026 and if, as many nationalist politicians privately believe it will be, the SNP is beaten by Scottish Labour, he will be in the perfect position to reassert himself as the true leader of the nationalist cause.

After years of chaos wrought the Conservatives at Westminster, the relative calm promised by a Labour victory in July has undoubted appeal.

But the prospect of steady, unspectacular government under Sir Keir Starmer – or Labour’s Anas Sarwar at Holyrood – at a time of financial insecurity creates opportunities for nationalist rabble rousers.

I believe Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond, those peas–in–a–pod populists, are about to cause absolute bloody mayhem.

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