Nick Cohen Nick Cohen

How the Tories created Nigel Farage

Nigel Farage announces his general election u-turn (Getty images)

Conventional Conservative wisdom once warned about the dangers of appeasement. Rudyard Kipling, the great poet of imperialism, may be the most cancelled figure in British literature, but I imagine even leftists can see how his lines in Danegeld apply to the Tory party’s appeasement of Nigel Farage:

‘And that is called paying the Dane-geld;

But we’ve proved it again and again,

That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld

You never get rid of the Dane.

I guess, too, that before the rise of Ukip, all Conservative politicians knew Winston Churchill’s line that ‘an appeaser is one who feeds a crocodile, hoping it will eat him last’.

Sunak is leading the Tories to a defeat from which they may never recover

The eyes in Farage’s leathery face are twinkling with a hungry gleam as he contemplates feasting on the corpse of the Sunak administration. His triumph is a Tory disaster.

For almost two decades now, successive Conservative leaders have appeased Farage. The consequences have been disastrous for the party and the country. You can see why they think it is dangerous to take Farage on. The last prominent Tory to do so was David Cameron in 2006 – yes, that is 2006: almost 20 years ago.

‘Ukip is sort of a bunch of…fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists mostly,’ Cameron told LBC radio. Defending his remarks, Cameron made pertinent points which can still be made today. Farage and friends were the ”Stop the world I want to get off’ party’, he said. They remain so to this day. They offer fantasy slogans whose costs far outweigh any potential benefits.

I won’t go on about Brexit, enough has been said about that needless act of national self-harm. But Reform’s demand that we join Putin’s Russia and Belarus and leave the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), makes Lord Cameron’s point for him.

Farage hates it because the human rights court can stop the deportation of asylum seekers. To which the only response a grown-up government can make is: ‘We are sorry Nige, we feel your pain, but that’s just tough.’

The Belfast/Good Friday agreement requires that the ECHR is part of the law in Northern Ireland. There is no way for the UK to leave the ECHR without violating the agreement, endangering the peace settlement in Northern Ireland, as well as the UK’s relationship with Ireland, the EU and the US. I know for a fact that American officials have made this point very clear to British ministers in the strongest possible language.

The ECHR is also woven into the devolution settlement and the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which governs the post-Brexit relationship. Indeed, the EU has stated that, if the UK left the ECHR, it would terminate this part of the agreement, which could effectively stop the extradition of criminal suspects from the EU to face trial in the UK.

Do you ever hear Downing Street or the Tory leadership explaining the facts of life to potential Reform voters? Of course not, all they do is appease.

David Cameron took on Farage and then backed away. He conceded a referendum on our EU membership and by taking the UK out by mistake made a nonsense of his premiership and his entire political career. 

Nigel Farage gets a hero’s welcome in Clacton (Getty)

The threat to the Tories from the Brexit party, Ukip’s successor, helped bring Boris Johnson to power (you may remember that Farage drove the Tory vote down to a paltry nine per cent in the 2019 European parliament elections.) The result was Johnson and Frost’s hard Brexit which has left the UK economy up to five per cent smaller than it otherwise would have been.

In 2006, Eric Pickles, then the deputy chairman of the Conservative party, backed Cameron, saying he had a ‘legitimate point’ and Ukip had had ‘too easy a deal’. But too easy a deal is exactly what the Conservatives have offered their enemies on the right in the years since.

I can see them making two calculations. First, if you say Ukip and its successor parties are filled with ‘fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists’ you are not only insulting Farage and his followers, but a substantial portion of the Conservative membership and the Tory hinterland in the Conservative press and wonk world.

This strategy worked for Boris Johnson. But it is a disaster for Rishi Sunak

To outsiders they may look like fruitcakes, and indeed, loons, but Conservative leaders cannot say this to their followers and expect them to receive the news with equanimity. Their only strategy appears to be to unite the right behind Conservative leadership.

Fair enough, this strategy worked for Boris Johnson in 2019. But it is a disaster for Rishi Sunak in 2024 in ways that Conservatives do not begin to comprehend. Let me count them.

There is strong evidence that the Tories will never be rid of the Dane, however much geld they offer. No amount of bribery will appease a large section of the Reform vote. As a study by YouGov put it recently. ‘The large majority of Tory defectors to Reform UK seem unlikely to change their minds – 45 per cent say they have totally made up their mind and won’t change it, while a further 31 per cent say they’ve probably decided and are unlikely to wobble.’

By constantly harping on Farage’s themes, the Tories have elevated rather than neutralised him. Concern about immigration fell after Brexit with the public becoming strikingly more positive. Sunak has played to Farage’s strengths by jacking concern up again, and then failing to offer any workable solutions.

Imagine being Giles Watling, the Conservative candidate in Clacton, or any other Conservative fighting Reform. What briefings are they receiving from Tory HQ? What lines of attack are on offer? They can’t say that voters shouldn’t listen to Farage because he damaged the country with a hard Brexit. They cannot say that his plan to leave the ECHR would cause a constitutional and international crisis. They can’t say that he has no plan for how to compensate for the economic consequences of cutting migration.

In short, they cannot follow Eric Pickles’s advice in 2006 and stop giving Farage an ‘easy deal’. Years of appeasement have meant that an easy deal is all the Tory party can offer.

Meanwhile, no one in the Tory command thinks about the effect of Sunak’s dangerous posturing on moderate conservative voters. He is driving them away.

I have no doubt that Farage can win in Clacton and maybe Reform will take a couple of other seats. But scores upon scores of Tory seats will fall to the Labour party, including seats in southern England that have been Tory for as long as anyone can remember and then some more.

I cannot overemphasise to conservative readers the iron determination on the centre-left to destroy the Tory party. If that means putting up with compromises by Keir Starmer we once would have hated, so be it. He must do whatever it takes to win. If that means Labour people voting Lib Dem or vice versa, bring it on. Nothing else matters. All that is left is the imperative to do whatever it takes to just get rid of them.

Sunak, with his infantile stunt and half-baked populism, is feeding the anger on the centre left that will lead to his destruction. Journalists are prone to hyperbole; it’s an occupational disease. But Sunak is leading the Tories to a defeat from which they may never recover. And all I, and millions of others, can say is that they bloody well deserve it.