Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 21 May 2019

The political consequences of Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage, as leader of UKIP, was critical in making Cameron commit to an EU referendum. As a key player on the Leave side in the referendum he helped gain a narrow victory. Conservative Brexiters then turned a vote for a negotiated deal with the EU into a headbanging demand to leave without any deal at all. When that failed to be agreed by parliament Nigel Farage re-enters the picture talking about humiliation and national betrayal and demanding a No Deal exit. The political consequences of Farage have already been immense, and they do not look like they are going away. What further havoc is he likely to cause?

With the exception of the EU referendum itself, his influence has nearly always been through the Conservative party. It will be through the threat he poses to Conservatives in the future that will define his greatest influence now. Although Brexiters will never admit this, they must be hoping that Farage decimates the Conservative vote in the European elections. The Brexit party have announced no policies beyond a desire to get on with Brexit, by which they mean leave with No Deal. His support is not that surprising given the even larger support for No Deal in the polls. If you think its unusual for so many to abandon the Conservative party you are also probably still wondering how so many people could vote for Trump.

Brexiters will argue that they have to move their own party’s policy from leaving with some kind of agreed deal to leaving without a deal (perhaps after another fruitless attempt to negotiate away the backstop), otherwise Farage will seriously damage their vote in any general election. They would be correct, particularly if Labour drop their pointless desire to negotiate a Brexit deal of their own. One Brexiter has even suggested an electoral pact with Farage, where they divide up Westminster seats between them.

The candidates for the next leader of the Conservative party will be falling over themselves to appeal to a membership a majority of whom favour No Deal (see here and a recent Times/YouGov poll). That process may itself lead to some kind of commitment to No Deal and not to hold a People’s Vote. But MPs and Conservative party members will also be thinking of selecting someone who can match the charisma of Farage. If he survives the preliminary votes by MPs, Boris Johnson may seem an irresistible choice. He is currently the clear front runner in a recent poll of members.

It is possible that whoever was elected, and whatever the commitments they made during their campaign, might try and steer some kind of middle course between the two wings of the party. But Farage would always be waiting to call betrayal and attract Tory votes in the forthcoming general election. The only escape route I can see is to change the backstop back to its original form, where it only applies to Northern Ireland. Whether that option could get through parliament is unclear. As the DUP are bound to end their arrangement with the government in those circumstances, a general election would have to follow.

If instead the new Prime Minister did commit to No Deal, the issue is whether they could get that through parliament. With the current set of MPs that seems unlikely. Nevertheless they will see it as their only chance of making Farage go away. The Conservatives have dug a deep hole for themselves, and they will believe that the only way forward is to dig some more. That policy would lead to defections or resignations by some MPs, but the leadership and other Brexiters would take that as an opportunity to replace them with Brexiters in due course.

There is one possibility which in normal times we would not even think about but which unfortunately we now have to. That possibility is that the government led by someone like Boris Johnson decides to leave without any deal without consulting parliament, using the 2016 referendum to say that the people are more important than parliament. My understanding is that technically they could do so, but it would be a constitutional outrage in most MPs eyes. Parliament would almost certainly find some opportunity to give voice to their objection, but what if the government took no notice?

A major constitutional crisis like this means many things could happen. It is possible the EU would not accept the withdrawal unless it was approved by parliament. Parliament could refuse to pass any legislation associated with withdrawal. Having to worry about such things illustrates how far along the populist road (in the Jan-Werner Müller sense of the term) we have gone.

It is more likely that the government would settle for the long game, with the hope that through time and a General Election it could get enough MPs to get No Deal through parliament. If the EU loses patience and refuses an extension, the government could call an election talking about bullying from the EU and turning nationalist rhetoric to maximum volume.

Could a Conservative party pushing a no deal exit ever win a general election? If the election took place after parliament had revoked Article 50 or a referendum had chosen Remain, voters would soon decide that they really didn’t want to go through the process again. Indeed the longer we stay in Brexit limbo the more people will prefer to forget about the whole thing. That and a slim majority would put some pressure on any new leader to hold an early election.

Could a recently appointed Conservative Prime Minister beat Labour in an early election? It is not impossible, particularly if the Labour leadership are still clinging to a belief that Brexit should take place. But I also think it is rather unlikely. Boris, like May, is a good foil for Corbyn, as this poll suggests. Those who think a Prime Minister should be serious rather than a buffoon will tend to choose Corbyn. More people would rather Remain than leave without a deal, including some Conervative voters. As John Harris points out, the young middle class of suburban England many of whom voted Remain are learning how not to vote Conservative. On non-Brexit policies Labour will win the cities hands down, and attract many in more traditional heartlands.

How did the Conservative party find itself in a position where its only slim chance of winning a general election is to embrace a policy opposed by most of business and which will inevitably have a very serious impact on the economy? The first blunder was of course the decision to appease UKIP and Tory Brexiters by promising to hold a referendum. The second was a failure to pin down the Brexiters to commit to some form of leaving before the referendum. The third was to fight a terrible campaign. But even then a wise leader would have seen the gift that having a leader of the opposition who wanted Brexit presented and gone for a conciliatory Brexit, which would have at least allowed a Withdrawal Agreement to be passed by parliament. In fact Theresa May did practically everything wrong, including adopting the fateful ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ mantra.

The bigger picture answer is that we are seeing the consequence of what in my book I call neoliberal overreach. It was the Conservative party and its supporting press that began the long process of whipping up anxiety about immigration. It was a Conservative government that embarked on sustained austerity during the worst recession since the war that lead to the slowest recovery for centuries, and it was they who erroneously blamed immigration for the resulting collapse in public services and real wages.

When you flirt with the tools of the far right and encourage the fears the far right play on, you are in great danger of getting into bed with them. Farage’s work on the EU is nearly done, but he will be ready and waiting for the next nationalist cause he can take up, and any future Conservative Prime Minister will be too weak in electoral terms to resist his siren call. The Conservatives have only have themselves to blame for playing with fire in the first place.


  1. Like the Institutional Revolutionary Party in Mexico, the Conservative party could morph into the Institutional Brexit Party. Imagine!

  2. I think only the Executive can revoke article 50 - parliament does not currently have that power (unless it legislated to give itself that power).

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Part of the narrative here is that a ‘No Deal’ declaration would provoke a constitutional crisis but revoking Article 50 would not. What sort of fantasy world is this? The Remainers are getting more and more extreme. The former would provoke Parliamentary disorder, the latter some sort of civil disobedience (since the Parliamentary process would have been exhausted) both would provoke a constitutional crisis.

  5. "With the exception of the EU referendum itself, his influence has nearly always been through the Conservative party."

    The Green Party manifesto in 2015 stated

    "We support the proposal to have an in–out referendum so that the British people can have their say. This is because much has changed since the UK joined the Common Market in 1974."

  6. New Labour takes some blame for fanning anti-immigration hate. Exhibit A: Blair's 'White' Cliffs of Dover speech.

  7. I am posting this comment a second time because I now realise that that this website no longer supports comments which include web links.

    “If the election took place after parliament had revoked Article 50 or a referendum had chosen Remain, voters would soon decide that they really didn’t want to go through the process again.”

    This only applies if there has been a proper People’s Vote (one with ‘No Deal’ on the ballot paper) and Remain achieve an unambiguous majority. Otherwise, fuelled by resentment, there will be a majority Farage Government at the next General Election and ‘No Deal’ will be legitimately implemented by a mirror image of whatever preceded it. If Article 50 were rescinded by Parliament with no further referendum, the new Parliament would legitimately implement ‘No Deal’ without a further referendum. If Remain were implemented by a ‘stitch up referendum’ (Brexit in name only versus Remain) then ‘No Deal’ would legitimately be implemented by a second ‘stitch-up’ referendum biased to achieve a ‘No Deal’.

    I do not wish to see Farage as Prime Minister and neither do Remainers, I implore them to act responsibly. Otherwise, we will only see a further deterioration of our democratic heritage. (As it is, for the first time, my wife and I decided not to vote in the recent local elections.)

    The Leave side has the advantage that they achieved a majority in the referendum. The Remain side has the advantage of a majority in Parliament. But that majority is only there because the Lib Dems reneged on their agreement to implement Boundary Commission changes in return for an AV referendum. Had Parliament been properly constituted with representative constituencies as determined by the Boundary Commission then the Parliamentary arithmetic from 2015 onwards would have been entirely different. What would the London Corresponding Society or the Society of the Friends of the People make of this? Having successfully campaigned against ‘Rotten Boroughs’ and enabled the Reform Act of 1832, they would despair of where we are now.

    It is interesting to read a comment I wrote in Dec 2018 in response to an LSE article “The Time Has come to revoke Article 50” [the web link is not permitted on this blog]. There I wrote that a Brexit party would attract all Leave votes in a future election, whereas Remain votes would be distributed among the old parties. Someone asked whether I meant UKIP and I answered no. Other commentators compared my ideas to unicorns and fairies but they were wrong. Let’s hope we don’t have to test the reality of my observations above.

  8. One of things which Progressives miss is the effect of Corbynism which both 'before' the Referendum and over the last 3 years has been ineffectual on exposing the dire econonomic consequences for tradional Labour voters in Leave areas ( for example Sunderland or Swindon or Derbyhire).

    Both inside & outside of Parliament Corbynism has failed to articulate the Brexit horrors and so manyLabour voters especially older ones have absorbed the Brexit hegemony from the Rightwing & their tabloids- the 'counter hegemony' should have been articulately led by the Leadership and Shadow cabinet. While some real good things happened in the House of Commons between top Remainers uniting to fight a Hard Brexit etc the end Corbyn's Labour, SNP,Plaid, Greens, and pitifully Change UK and LibDems failed to work together and defeat Farage, Johnson, Moggs etc.,

    It is an illusion I believe to accept that Corbynism is a solution for Britain's dire problems. To win elections you need impact, passion, intelligence and a vision and more getting down into a fight with the Hard Right. Remainders have followed a gentle, polite, celebral approach and Corbynism has been too accommodating with Brexit - almost giving it legitimation by providing excuses about elites or left behinds . Brexiteers have bit back hard and Remainders better get far more politically aggressive else Farage and Johnson will dominate this parliament within weeks. Peterborough byelection will soon be a critical test of typical swing seats which Labour have to get in the Midlands and South East.

  9. The bottom line is that Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are Leavers at heart but they both campaigned for Remain. They didn’t stay true to themselves where Farage did. If either May or Corbyn or both had been true to themselves and campaigned for what they believed in then the referendum would have been more decisive and the country wouldn’t be in the mess that it is now. May created her own problems by campaigning for Remain, so she doesn’t deserve sympathy.

    The great British public aren’t stupid they can detect when a politician is insincere. That is why May had to go and why Corbyn must now go if Labour are to progress.

  10. It seems very likely that Boris will call a general election soon after he is elected. He will have no fear of Farage as he will promise a no deal Brexit. Some reasonable conservatives will rather stay home than vote for him but he will appeal to Brexiters from Labour. He managed to be elected Mayor in London so I don't see why he won't win a general election.
    For Labour it is a bit late to change its stance on Brexit, and as it is it won't appeal neither to Remainers nor to Leavers-so Boris will win triangulating (or quadrangulating...) the Remain vote.

    The Blairite faction will keep fighting Corbyn and there are many people who would never vote for Corbyn considering him an extremist.

    So this is a very real risk, and I am not sure how it could be countered. Only if Corbyn manages to beat Boris in his own populist game but I really don't see how he could manage this feat.

  11. From the other side of the world it seems to me the UK political class has had a bout of collective madness. Maybe there's a bunch of reactionary Little Englanders in the Conservatives who think a no-deal Brexit would jolly well show Johnny Foreigner what's what, but in case you hadn't noticed they do not have a majority. What on earth are the DUP thinking? Their people would be the first and hardest hit of all by a no deal Brexit.

    And why isn't Labour united in its determination that Brexit will not stand? It's elementary triangulation - when your opponents are split you have to unequivocally take one side of the other of the split before they patch up a deal. Can't that fool Corbyn see that despite the economic disaster Brexit will cause Johnson has every chance of winning the next election while Corbyn keeps being so mealy-mouthed?


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