Brexit Party Threatens Tories and They Aren't Even Fighting Back

(Bloomberg) -- Nigel Farage is back, doing what he does best: Terrifying Conservative members of Parliament.

Theresa May’s deeply divided Conservative Party can’t agree on how to tackle the threat posed by the veteran anti-EU campaigner and founder of the new Brexit Party -- a threat one Cabinet minister described as existential.
As long as the Tories fail to deliver Brexit, the minister said, Farage will strip them of votes. The first test of that will be on May 23, when the country is likely to take part in an election to the European Union’s parliament -- even though Britain voted to leave the bloc three years ago.

Brexit Party Threatens Tories and They Aren't Even Fighting Back
Brexit Party Threatens Tories and They Aren't Even Fighting Back

Polls put Farage’s Brexit Party, which wants an immediate, clean break from the EU, on course to win the most votes. And as he travels the country drumming up support with beer and open-topped buses, the Tories aren’t even trying to fight him.

May’s team doesn’t want to publicly admit that the elections will take place, so they haven’t yet launched a campaign. The government is still trying -- against all odds -- to get a Brexit deal agreed by Parliament in time to allow it to cancel the vote and leave the bloc next month.

Pint Swilling

Farage, a skilled political operator known for his pint swilling and man-of-the-people rhetoric, has made the most of the void. He’s announced a series of high-profile candidates, including former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe, who enjoyed celebrity in her retirement as a reality TV star.

While the established parties are mired in the detail of leaving the EU, arguing about what’s achievable and whether it constitutes Brexit or not, he’s unencumbered by the responsibilities of power and has a simple message: Politicians aren’t listening to the public.

It’s this kind of campaign the Tories fear they would face if they held a general election while Britain is still in the EU.

“It would be a big mistake to have an election until we’ve left the EU,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told reporters at a lunch on Thursday. Leaving the bloc “is what we promised people we would do last time, they are expecting us to do that and frankly I think they’re very perplexed that we haven’t done it yet,” he said.

Tory Splits

Farage argues that delays to Britain’s departure -- it is now off until October -- show the government isn’t really interested in delivering Brexit at all. It’s a measure of the splits in the Conservative Party that some of its lawmakers agree with him.

Though he’s failed for decades to get elected to the U.K. Parliament, the proportional representation voting system at EU elections has worked well for Farage before. In 2014, when Brexit was also a key topic, his U.K. Independence Party came first, winning 27 percent of the vote and 24 out of Britain’s 73 seats.

Brexit Party Threatens Tories and They Aren't Even Fighting Back

While most Tory MPs are united in the belief Farage will trounce them this time, they can’t agree on what it means or how to tackle it. Steve Baker, a hardline Brexiteer who thinks May’s approach to the divorce leaves too much power with the EU, is confident Farage can’t become a long-term threat.

He points to the Brexit Party’s broad candidate list, which includes a former member of the Revolutionary Communist Party alongside former Tory minister Widdecombe.

‘Thorough Drubbing’

“I’m sure we face a thorough drubbing. But we mustn’t panic,” Baker said in an interview. “I see no possibility of them forming a coherent party of government, so I conclude that they’re a single-issue protest party, albeit one that looks likely to enjoy considerable success in these elections.”

Philip Lee, a Conservative who resigned as a minister in May’s government to campaign for a second Brexit referendum, takes a different lesson from Farage’s high poll ratings.

“There’s no future for the Conservatives as the Brexit party, because there will always be someone offering a purer Brexit,” he said. “Being solely a Brexit party doesn’t deliver a majority in Westminster.”

But Farage may not have things all his own way. He could, for example, find it hard to keep his high-profile candidates in line.

In his time as UKIP leader, he struggled to deal with the fallout from comments by colleagues who were less politically deft than him. The 2014 success led to problems as party members fell out, and five years later, just three of the 24 MEPs elected that year are still in UKIP.

Farage has already had to remove the Brexit Party’s first leader and its treasurer as a result of social media attacks on Muslims and Jews.

‘Populism’

Combating extremism could offer a way forward, according to Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has been mooted as a possible successor when May stands down as party leader.

“We need to reject a populism that isn’t based on objective fact, on taking the country forward and actually delivering,” Hancock told the BBC on Thursday. “We need a positive, compelling vision that’s rooted in the center ground.”

One of Hancock’s Cabinet colleagues said privately they don’t see any need to lose sleep over Farage -- unless Britain stays in the EU. Most Tories agree the best way to deal with the threat is to deliver Brexit, and then move swiftly on.

There’s just one problem. The party’s inability to agree on the best path for leaving the EU is how they got here in the first place. And that division shows no sign of healing.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.