The ultimate U-turn: why Nigel Farage changed his mind about
standing as an MP

The ultimate U-turn: why Nigel Farage changed his mind about standing as an MP

Barely two weeks after Nigel Farage informed the world he would not be standing as an MP in the upcoming general election, the former UKIP leader has undertaken a sensational U-turn. Farage will now stand for Reform UK, of which he is honorary president, in Clacton. It’s the constituency Conservative defector Douglas Carswell won for Farage’s UKIP in a 2014 by-election and, subsequently, the 2015 general election. 

Speaking to a hastily arranged Reform press conference this afternoon, Farage also confirmed — in a move that will send shockwaves through the still-nascent election campaign — that he is taking over from Richard Tice as party leader. For some time now, Nigel Farage has always been some shade of “back” — be that as a more active party president, primetime political presenter or election campaigner. But this is the fully-fledged, frontline comeback many have long-hypothesised: the return of the Farage is upon us; Conservatives beware. 

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As such, whatever you think of the GB News presenter, his dual announcements today are of striking significance — even more so because of their unexpected nature. Only Farage could spin such an ostensibly embarrassing U-turn to his political advantage. 

Indeed, in a statement released on 23rd May, Farage informed the nation that his primary political focus was not on our election, but that of the United States of America. In a brief election missive, the ex-Brexit Party chieftain insisted that he would do his “bit to help” Reform through the campaign. But he added: “Important though the general election is, the contest in the [US] on November 5 has huge global significance”.

This statement was greeted with genuine jubilation from Farage’s political foes — by which I mean Rishi Sunak and his CCHQ apparatchiks. It soon became clear why. Not long after, it emerged that the prime minister’s very decision to call an early poll for 4th July coincided with renewed rumblings about the prospect of a Farage comeback. Ahead of Sunak’s wet speech on 22nd May, the Reform president had been preparing to announce his plan to run as a candidate in the upcoming election — perhaps as the candidate for then-vacant seat of Boston and Skegness, the most pro-Brexit constituency in the country. 

The Tories, one reading runs, caught wind of Farage’s sly machinations and reached for the lectern. Reform’s leader Tice was subsequently slid into the Boston and Skegness seat and politics rolled forward, sans Nigel. Of course, the apparent Reform position — that while Tice could nurse a new seat to victory in six weeks, Farage couldn’t — remained fundamentally nonsensical. But that didn’t halt the cork-popping in CCHQ.

Not only had Reform recorded pretty lousy results at the local elections, but the party was now lacking its most potent political asset. In a subsequent Reform press conference, Farage insisted he simply could not campaign both nationally and for one constituency in the election’s six-week timeframe; Sunak had used “first mover advantage” to wrong-foot him. 

As such, after months of failed relaunches, the PM’s strategists had finally shown some political savvy. Or so it seemed. 

Over the following days, Farage began to reconsider his rationale for not standing at the election. He stopped stressing the significance of the USA’s poll — an incongruous emphasis for a British populist; rather, he began to boast of his new role as a national campaigner for Reform. No longer, Farage affirmed, was his standing as an electoral asset diminished by his ties to a single constituency.

At around this time, with Sunak’s strategists perhaps beginning to rethink their initial glee, a leaked memo containing internal Tory polling was revealed by Bloomberg. It suggested that the Conservatives could lose more than 100 seats due to a Reform spoiler insurgency — proving that while the PM was right to wrong-foot Farage, the broader Reform threat remained. 

Consider also the underlying nature of Reform and its voter base. Reform is not like UKIP c. 2010-2015, in the sense that Farage’s former party derived a large share of its support from aggrieved Labour voters. Reform’s base is almost entirely ex-Conservatives, unhappy (an understatement) about the direction the party has taken in recent years. The threat Reform poses after 14 years of Conservative government is, therefore, broader and less perishable than that of the single-issue party UKIP. Tellingly, both Tice and Farage have declared their intention to “destroy” the Conservative Party — as opposed to merely moulding its political outlook or forcing an issue up its agenda.

Having previously joked about leading the Tories after the election, Farage’s announcement today would suggest he is now entirely signed-up to this vision of “destruction”. It is an observation that brings us to another potential reason Farage has opted to stand for Reform: the Conservative prospects are proving stubbornly dire.

For much of this year, Farage seemed genuinely enticed by the prospect of shaping the Conservative Party’s ideological framework through the next parliament, even, as an active participant in Tory politics. As late as last week, Farage told The Sun’s Never Mind the Ballots programme, that he would consider a deal with the Conservatives if there was “something in return”.

As such, it’s possible that recent polling could have moulded Farage’s outlook ahead of his announcement today. On Saturday, a “mega” MRP poll, conducted by Electoral Calculus on behalf of GB News (meaning the ex-UKIP leader might have received advanced sight), predicted that the Conservatives could be reduced to 66 seats in the next parliament. 

The poll begged one big question of Farage’s future: why should he commit himself to helping a party, to which he owes nothing, that has such little chance of recovering in time for the 2029 election? If the Conservatives are reduced to less than 100 seats on 4th July, you can effectively rule out the possibility of a medium-term revival — no matter the extent of voter volatility. In fact, it would be far from inevitable that the Conservatives could ever recover. Why would Farage willingly join the sinking Tory ship?

These figures made the possibility of the Conservative Party’s destruction feel evermore real — and a political comeback for Farage, therefore, all the more appealing. For these same reasons, CCHQ will be positively quivering in response to today’s developments. 

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A poll in January found that, were Farage to return as Reform leader, the party’s vote share would increase by 3 points — from 11 per cent at the time to 14 per cent. Of course, a great deal has changed since January, not least of all the prominence of Reform and the political stakes; furthermore, such polling does not account for the increased media coverage Reform will now garner after Farage’s return, nor the manifold multiplier ramifications: such as further MP defections or high-profile endorsements.

In this way, Tom Hunt, the Conservative right-winger seeking re-election in Ipswich, put out a cryptic tweet after Farage teased his plans this morning. “Much to ponder”, he said. (Reform has already attracted one Tory MP since the election was triggered: Lucy Allan, who represented Telford in Shropshire from 2015-2024, endorsed Farage’s party last week).

On top of this, a YouGov poll for the Telegraph in March found that 50 per cent of 2019 Conservative voters have a positive view of Nigel Farage — compared to only 40 per cent for Rishi Sunak. The Conservatives’ election campaign has so far been focussed on shoring up the party base. The idea to bring back national service, plainly, is aimed at nationalistic, older voters who could be considering swinging to Reform at the election; the announcement that the Conservatives will offer a tax cut to pensioners with a new “triple lock plus” serves a similar political purpose.

Farage’s comeback, however, will make the Conservative Party’s base quake like never before. How the PM responds, perhaps with a major illegal migration policy announcement on the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), will be another factor to watch. 

In recent months, Farage has revelled in his status as a living, breathing existential threat to the Conservative Party. Today, having so recently passed up the opportunity, Farage opted to make that threat a reality. 

Call it what it is: Rishi Sunak’s worst nightmare. 

Josh Self is Editor of Politics.co.uk, follow him on X/Twitter here.

Politics.co.uk is the UK’s leading digital-only political website. Subscribe to our daily newsletter for all the latest election news and analysis.



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