(Bloomberg) -- Nigel Farage finally met his match. Submerged in a water tank filled with snakes and critters filming an infamous British reality TV show, the controversial politician blurted out the eponymous catchphrase to end his ordeal: “I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here.”
It was a rare moment of public weakness for a man whose right-wing firebrand bravado has driven Conservative prime ministers to distraction for more than a decade. Even from the TV set in an Australian rainforest, the face of Brexit — a label he shares with disgraced ex-premier Boris Johnson — is shaping Tory infighting and disrupting Rishi Sunak’s bid to cling to power at an election expected next year.
The threat posed by Farage, and the Reform UK party he founded but doesn’t lead, is key to understanding recent convulsions in the Tories. Trailing the opposition Labour Party by more than 20 points in some polls, conventional wisdom dictates Sunak should tack to the political center to appeal to the broadest possible swathe of voters.
The premier has done the opposite, turning efforts to tackle climate change into a political wedge issue, and allowing ministers to voice right-wing conspiracy theories.
Yet it’s on immigration that the Farage influence is most visible. In January, Sunak made stopping boats carrying asylum seekers across the English Channel one of five key pledges he urged voters to judge him by — a political calculation based on the prominence of migration in opinion polls.
But while arrivals are down this year, they remain high by historical standards and Sunak’s gamble has played into Farage’s hands. The former leader of the Brexit and UK Independence parties is known for campaigning to leave the European Union but also for his videos documenting small boats coming ashore in southern England.
In mid-November, Sunak appeared to show a more moderate Tory face to voters, firing his divisive home secretary, Suella Braverman, and bringing former premier David Cameron — regarded as popular with centrists — into his Cabinet.
But two days later, the immigration issue blew up spectacularly when the Supreme Court shot down his plan to deport asylum-seekers to Rwanda, which ministers saw as a necessary deterrent to reduce arrivals.
Then, official data estimated 672,000 more people moved to the UK than departed in the year ending June, more than double net migration at the time of the 2016 Brexit referendum. That compounded the febrile mood among right-wing Tory MPs. Their threat to Sunak was explicit: sound and act more like Farage on immigration, or face a potential leadership challenge.
On Monday, Home Secretary James Cleverly set out measures to dramatically decrease net migration, including blocking staff coming to work in the struggling care sector from bringing their children, and raising the salary threshold for Britons wanting to return to Britain with an overseas spouse.
Hours later, he was in Rwanda signing a new deportation treaty, as Sunak tries to get his plan past the UK courts. The premier has repeatedly refused to rule out legislating to bypass Britain’s obligations under domestic human rights law and various international conventions.
Braverman has called for Sunak to go as hard as possible. In a statement to the House of Commons on Wednesday, she said the Tories faced “electoral oblivion in a matter of months if we introduce yet another bill destined to fail. Do we fight for sovereignty or let our party die?” She warned that she would “refuse to sit by” if Sunak’s migration policy does not meet the right’s expectations.
There are echoes of past Tory wrangling with Farage. Cameron acquiesced to a vote on Britain’s EU membership under pressure from euroskeptics and unease at the rise of UKIP. Theresa May pushed a harder Brexit than most expected as she sought to win around Tories who had internalized Farage’s anti-EU thinking.
But Johnson’s approach to the threat from Farage’s Brexit Party before the 2019 general election — cutting a deal to ensure it didn’t stand in all seats — is what most influences current thinking. That ensured the right-wing vote didn’t fracture enough to allow Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour to take power, delivering the Tories a thumping majority.
Some right-wing Tories want Sunak to cut a similar deal with Reform UK, led by Richard Tice. Hard-line immigration policies, coupled with a seat in the House of Lords or other incentives, are typically suggested as enticements. Another option would see Farage offered a plum Tory seat and Cabinet role, with the Conservatives absorbing Reform.
Some Tories see Farage as part of the solution for revamping the party if it loses the election, a person familiar with the matter said.
A Reform UK official described deliberations about Farage as proof their party lives “rent-free” in Tory heads.
“He would take no nonsense” as a Tory home secretary, Conservative MP Jonathan Gullis told GB News, the right-wing channel where Farage has his own show. “He is a big voice on the key issues like immigration.”
Despite Farage’s repeated failure to win a Westminster seat, some Tories think his everyman persona plays well with voters. On the sidelines of the Conservative Party’s annual conference in October, he was arguably — alongside ex-premier Liz Truss — the star attraction.
The contrast with the millionaire Sunak — whose stock answer when asked about Farage joining is that the Tories are a “broad church” — is stark.
Earlier this year, Farage showed how effective he remains as a campaigner when he brought about NatWest Group Plc Chief Executive Officer Alison Rose’s departure following a row over the closing of his bank account.
Still, the view that the Tories should offer Farage a political home is far from universal. Critics point out that trying to appease him and other right-wingers in the past has led to ever more extreme demands rather than snuffing out the threat.
There are also questions about the level of threat Farage and Reform actually pose. National polls put the party at about 7%-10%, though their best performance in a by-election this parliamentary session is 6.6%.
“There is no threat Reform will win a large number of seats at the general election,” but they “can act as spoilers,” said Malcolm Rifkind, a Cabinet minister under both Margaret Thatcher and John Major. “Farage and UKIP, now Reform, had a powerful impact on the EU debate. But after that debate his influence waned.”
That view is bolstered by reports that ratings for “I’m a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here” are down considerably on a year ago, when former Health Secretary Matt Hancock appeared on the show.
But there’s a counterargument for Farage, who entered the reality show jungle weeks after Reform showed its potential impact: the party’s share of the vote at a special election in Tamworth in October was bigger than Labour’s margin of victory over the Tories.
Few expect Farage to emerge from the jungle without a strategy to leverage that, with British political sights set firmly on a general election due by January 2025. Speaking to Bloomberg, Tice was adamant Farage would not join the Tories and that Reform would not strike a 2019-style deal.
“If someone consistently promises to supply a service to you and fails to deliver, you fire that supplier,” Tice said. The Tories “need to be punished very severely in my view. They have broken Britain.”
Yet the Brexit Party trotted out a similar line in 2019 before a deal was ultimately struck. Farage will look at his options when he leaves Australia, and decide if Reform is the right mechanism, a person familiar with his thinking said. He’ll also enjoy people guessing, they said.
--With assistance from Julius Domoney and Andrew Atkinson.
(Updates with Braverman comment in 12th paragraph.)
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