Why Nigel Farage’s comeback matters as Tories stare into heavy defeat

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Good morning. Bad news arrives in pairs for Rishi Sunak — YouGov’s first MRP projection of the campaign showing the party on course for a worse defeat than the one they suffered in 1997, while Nigel Farage, who had previously said he was going to sit this one out, is back as the Reform party’s leader and as a candidate in Clacton.

In many ways, all these things do is confirm what is already obvious to anyone with eyes to see: the Conservative party has big, big problems. Some more thoughts on that below.

Inside Politics is edited by Georgina Quach. Read the previous edition of the newsletter here. Please send gossip, thoughts and feedback to insidepolitics@ft.com

Making plans for Nigel

How much of a difference does it make, really, that Nigel Farage has returned to frontline politics as leader of Reform and will stand as the party’s candidate in Clacton?

It probably matters a great deal in Clacton — this is demographically speaking, one of, if not the most, Farage-friendly constituencies in the UK. Farage’s previous parties have done well here even in good years for the Conservative party — so his chances of him winning it are very high.

But in practice, when I travel the country asking people what they think of the political parties, among people who have heard of Reform, practically all thought Farage was the party’s leader anyway. (And indeed, as Rafe Uddin’s excellent piece about the party’s unusual structure explains, in many ways, they were right: Reform is essentially a company in which Farage is the majority shareholder and the one who controls its direction, whether he is its leader or not.)

As Richard Tice’s successor, Farage will participate in the televised debate with six other UK parties on BBC 1 at 7:30pm on Friday. The broadcasters were always going to want to have Nigel Farage on air rather than any other member of Reform, for the same reason that anyone writing about Indiana Jones is going to have a picture of Harrison Ford rather than any of the rest of the cast. This is a show with only one proper star.

And Rishi Sunak’s strategy of throwing red meat at Reform voters and undecided voters who had backed the Conservatives in 2019 was already failing to move the polls, partly because much of the electorate think the party has failed to deliver on its promises.

So why the Tories’ latest gambit — another high-profile pledge on immigration — would land any better is beyond me frankly.

In many ways, Farage is getting back to frontline politics because Reform is already doing fairly well — not as well as some of the polls suggest, but well enough that he has a good chance of not ending this election looking like a loser. It simply confirms what we already knew about this election: Sunak’s election campaign is going badly and the opinion polls are about right. Both present big opportunities for all of Sunak’s opponents.

But it matters a lot in terms of the Conservative party’s mood. One thing that could make what already looks like a defeat worse than the one the Tory party suffered in 1997, and worse than the drubbing the Canadian Conservatives experienced in 1993, when they were reduced to just two seats, is if Tory MPs start panicking. Prospects could sink lower if MPs begin to freestyle their own strategies to save their seats and give the impression that the party is a disorganised rabble.

Sunak meets Keir Starmer for the first televised debate tonight on ITV. A bad performance by the prime minister could be what triggers agitation in the Tory party such that the state of the polls becomes the best-case scenario. Let me know how you think Farage will impact the Tories in our poll below. Click here to vote.

Now try this

I had a lovely time on Radio 4’s Free Thinking on Friday talking about the Planet of the Apes films (and the forthcoming Tigritudes season at the British Film Institute, where unfortunately I have had to give up some of my tickets to cover this election I hear so much about). Still, I am going to see Planet of the Apes again before the debate tonight, as it seems exactly like the kind of mindless palate cleanser one needs prior to the event. I’ll be commenting on it on the FT liveblog from tonight at 9pm.

Interested in how the European parliament elections will shape the EU? My colleagues in Paris, Rome and Germany will debate this in a subscriber-exclusive webinar on June 12. Register for your subscriber pass here and send in questions to the panel. Your pass also gives you access to a recording of the event.

Top stories today

  • You had Blair-ter believe it | A trio of senior Tory donors has decided against giving money to the party’s general election campaign after commissioning private polling showing Rishi Sunak is heading for an electoral rout. The donors’ poll, which cost more than £15,000, showed Labour was on track for a “Tony Blair-style landslide”, according to two people familiar with its results.

  • Labour’s hope of a Scottish resurgence | Simeon Kerr takes the temperature in leafy East Renfrewshire, a seat that Labour is targeting — even if it remains a reach — with the party needing to leapfrog the Conservatives. It hopes to take advantage of voters’ dismay with the SNP’s record.

  • Skills shortages ‘a national imperative’ | Britain has ambitious plans to build new infrastructure ranging from wind farms to data centres and new homes after decades of under-investment. The problem is that it cannot find the workers.

  • Missed child benefits payments | About 30 per cent of families expecting child benefits payments yesterday did not receive their latest payment, Martin Lewis reported. In the evening HMRC, which administers the payments, confirmed this affected 500,000 people and that it has fixed the issue (missed payments will be sent on Wednesday).

Below is the Financial Times’ live-updating UK poll-of-polls, which combines voting intention surveys published by major British pollsters. Visit the FT poll-tracker page to discover our methodology and explore polling data by demographic including age, gender, region and more.

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