Image Credit: Gage Skidmore
Nigel Farage has announced that he is withdrawing from party politics after resigning as the leader of Reform UK. Best known for his passionate criticism of the European Union, Farage rose to national prominence when he led Ukip to 3.8 million votes in the 2015 general election and applied sufficient pressure for David Cameron to call a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU less than nine months later. Although Farage has stepped away from frontline politics, he has pledged to continue influencing the debate through social media and guest appearances. The departure of such a significant public figure, coupled with the completion of Brexit, poses questions about the future of right-wing politics in the UK.
Farage has been a constant fixture of British right-wing politics for nearly thirty years. Originally a member of the Conservative Party, he left after becoming disillusioned with John Major’s signature on the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht. This aversion to closer British political ties with the European Union saw him become one of the founding members of UKIP the following year. Elected to the European Parliament in 1999, Farage served as a UKIP MEP for South East England and became one of the leading Eurosceptic voices in the UK.
The former stockbroker has been part of the national consciousness since his victory in the 2006 UKIP leadership race with 45 percent of the vote. Farage immediately pledged to bring discipline to a fractured party while offering an alternative to the three main parties by focusing on reducing immigration. Under his stewardship, UKIP steadily grew in stature, but he resigned as leader in November 2009 to focus on his unsuccessful MP for Buckingham campaign. He returned less than a year later and went on to lead UKIP to their best result when the party won the 2014 European Elections with over 4.3 million votes. After failing to win the South Thanet seat, Farage attempted to step down again, but bizarrely his resignation was refused by UKIP’s chairman due to the nationwide success the party enjoyed in the 2015 General Election.
Victory in the 2016 Referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the EU represented the culmination of Farage’s twenty years campaigning. Despite differences with key figures such as Dominic Cummings who sought to side-line him, the Leave campaign successfully gained 52 percent of the vote during a controversial campaign marred by insults and misinformation. However, this success also deprived him and his party of a primary purpose due to UKIP’s almost complete focus on Euroscepticism. Farage, who has always denied being a career politician, seemed to acknowledge UKIP had served its purpose when he stepped down as the party’s leader less than four months after the referendum.
In 2018, Farage returned to British frontline politics when he resigned his UKIP membership and helped launch the Brexit Party, a group aimed at voters frustrated by the gradual withdrawal strategy pursued by Theresa May’s government. The new party went on to win the largest share of the UK vote in the 2019 European Parliamentary elections, despite accusations from UKIP’s new elected leader, Gerard Batten, that the Brexit Party had “no policies.” May resigned in July 2019 after parliament rejected her withdrawal bill three times and was replaced by Boris Johnson who pursued an urgent exit strategy.
The UK’s official departure from the EU in January posed significant questions about the future purpose of the country’s right-wing political parties. Both UKIP and the Brexit Party were dominated by former Eurosceptic Tories, including Douglas Carswell and Ann Widdecombe respectively, and many supporters will potentially defect back to the Conservatives now that the UK has left the EU. In acknowledgement of this problem, the Brexit Party officially rebranded as Reform UK in January. During the Covid-19 pandemic the Reform Party has deviated from the Westminster consensus by questioning lockdown and the enforcement of mask-wearing. However, with Coronavirus cases on the decline coupled with the easing of restrictions, this anti-lockdown approach may not be sustainable for long term electoral success. Instead, Reform will have to focus on broader issues such as scrapping HS2 and House of Lords reform in an attempt to appeal to those disillusioned by the main two parties.
There is also uncertainty over who should lead Reform UK in post-Brexit Britain. Richard Tice, who has taken over from Farage, is far from a household name and lacks the public persona of his predecessor. Although an established Eurosceptic through his role as co-founder of ‘Leave Means Leave’, it is unclear how he will take the party forward now that Brexit has been achieved. The success of UKIP and the Brexit party were heavily dependent on the ability of Farage to convert his visibility into votes. Despite accusations of demonising immigrants, UKIP managed to win over 12.6 percent of the popular vote in the 2015 General Election. It remains to be seen whether Tice’s Reform UK can replicate the same level of support without the core issue of Brexit to motivate voters. If he is unable to do so, Reform UK risks following UKIP into right-wing extremism and political irrelevance. With Tice’s low profile, party members may hope that former television presenter and Deputy Leader David Bull will be able to draw attention to an otherwise fringe organisation.
While Farage has claimed to be leaving politics for good, his track record of withdrawing before swiftly returning, including resigning from UKIP’s leadership three times, suggests that his controversial and influential career in British politics may not be over just yet. Derided by some as a xenophobic extremist for his hostile language towards immigrants, and celebrated by others as a straight-talking freedom fighter, the influence that Nigel Farage has had on modern British politics is undisputable. Replacing him will be a sizeable task.