Patrick O’Flynn Patrick O’Flynn

How does Sunak solve a problem like Farage?

Nigel Farage (Credit: Getty images)

In the classic comedy Blackadder II the late, great Rik Mayall was responsible for one of the most memorable cameo appearances in television history. As the swashbuckling adventurer Lord Flasheart, he gatecrashed Blackadder’s wedding, declaring himself ‘flash by name and flash by nature’. Leaving female guests giddy and male ones open-mouthed in admiration, he then eloped with the spellbound bride. This left Rowan Atkinson’s Sir Edmund to contemplate the horror of a substitute marriage to the bridesmaid, Baldrick.

A week into this election, I found myself scouring YouTube for the relevant footage after observing Nigel Farage’s performances to date. When Rishi Sunak took the Westminster village by surprise with his snap election announcement, he also wrongfooted Farage who had been making secret preparations to stand in Clacton in the autumn.

So far, Sunak is dealing with this Farage blizzard as delicately as he can

This led Farage to put out a notably downbeat and low-energy statement the next day in which he declared: ‘I will do my bit to help in the campaign, but it is not the right time for me to go any further than that.’ Conservative campaign HQ breathed a collective sigh of relief at having secured a strategic victory which seemed to open up the Reform party vote to the mother of all squeezes.

Yet now it transpires that what ‘doing his bit’ means for Farage is dominating the airwaves and colonising every totemic or populist issue – from the threat of Islamism to stopping the boats – on behalf of Reform. The man is a veritable story machine and given the undeniable dullness of the two principals in the election tableau, his presence is drawing media attention as never before.

Already in the campaign, he has won major coverage for announcing he would step down from his GB News show for the duration of the campaign (as president of one of the competing parties he probably had no option); challenging Sunak to a TV debate on immigration; going on Sky News to talk about the problems caused by the behaviour of a growing minority of Muslims in Britain; securing a rapid apology from a BBC presenter who had accused him of using his ‘customary inflammatory language’ when he had merely been quoting the prime minister of Poland Donald Tusk.

Tonight he is due to be one of the panellists on the BBC’s flagship debate show Question Time, on which he will be going head-to-head with Piers Morgan. The Tory mouthpiece on the show will be Damian Hinds. With all due respect to Mr Hinds, it is hard to imagine him featuring much in the post-show video clips that get most circulated on social media. Farage is already utilising his giant followings on X and TikTok to good effect.

So far, Sunak, sporting a Blackadder-style rictus grin, is dealing with this Farage blizzard as delicately as he can. He does not want to alienate the Farage-sympathising sections of the electorate that he desperately needs to swing behind him by polling day.

The official Tory line is that while the Prime Minister has ‘respect for Nigel’, only Sunak or Starmer can be PM on 5 July and that it is between these two outcomes that the electorate must ultimately choose. There is also a theory that the headlines Farage is generating are so much about Farage that even Reform is getting squeezed out of the picture.

One Tory campaign source says of Farage:

If it were to carry on like this all the way to polling day then yes, it could be carnage. But it won’t. The binary choice will exert its gravitational pull in due course: the TV debates between the two prospective post-election PMs; the ensuing blanket media coverage. Someone who isn’t even standing can be the warm-up guy but not the main event.

But what if Farage is right that the Tories are so far behind that the election is considered a foregone conclusion by most voters? In that case his invitation to vote for what you actually believe in this time round rather than getting suckered into a mythical two-horse race could have an enduring appeal.

Perhaps there is a CCHQ cunning plan that will avert such an outcome. But right now one wouldn’t want to bet the farm on it.