It is understandable that, with the fulfilment of his career-defining ambition perhaps only months away, Nigel Farage might look ahead with some apprehension to the prospect of our actually departing the EU.
The cause of Brexit has, since long before the word ‘Brexit’ was coined, been the issue that gave the Brexit Party leader his prominent place in the national debate. Moreover he and his MEPs derive their personal salaries and status from the EU institutions, not to mention substantial funding used to support both his current party and UKIP before it.
Amongst those Brexiteers angry or baffled by Farage’s decision to throw the Brexit Party into this general election campaign, there is often a sneaking suspicion that its institutional interests, as it were, might be trumping its ideological ones.
The wheels very quickly came off his attempt to re-run the UKIP 2015 playbook. Boris Johnson’s exhortation to ‘get Brexit done’ proved much more in tune with the public mood than ongoing demands for a purer Brexit (however cosmically unjust that is), and the new-look People’s Army has pulled its troops out of hundreds of Tory-held seats.
With the polls now suggesting that the Conservatives are likely on course for a majority (if not a landslide) which will allow them to take us out of the EU by January, Farage is now clearly trying to find a new political role for himself.
So far, he seems to be looking at something like a right-populist equivalent of the Liberal Democrats. His ‘Contract with the People’, a riff on the Republican Party’s 1994 manifesto, features a selection of old favourites from the constitutional reformer’s chocolate box: a codified constitution, abolition of the House of Lords, and a more proportional voting system for starters.
According to the Daily Express he plans to rebrand the Brexit Party as the ‘Reform Party’, a move which invites parallels to the split on the Canadian right in the 1990s, which eventually ended only when the traditional conservative party merged with the new pretender to form today’s Conservative Party of Canada.
Farage does not think this is a short-term bet. Apparently he’s comparing his situation to that of the Labour Party at the turn of the last century, which started small before breaking into the system and eventually eclipsing one of the major parties.
But whilst there is a fascinating discussion to be had about what the ideology and long-term prospects of such a party might be, the big question mark is whether or not Farage can keep his show on the road long enough to make the pivot. It is the EU, rather than ‘reform’, which motivates his activists, and the European Parliament – which its low-turnout, PR-based elections and generous allowances – is a lifeline to small parties which is, barring an upset, about to be cut.
And if the Conservatives do contrive to lose this election, it is almost certain that they will elect a leader even more Brexit-y than Johnson and work very hard to own the issue in opposition, again putting the squeeze on the Brexit Party.
Farage’s best shot at ongoing relevance is if Johnson does form a Government and then somehow sells out, or can be portrayed as having done so. His talk about ‘keeping the Tories honest’ suggests he recognises this. But whether or not that comes to pass is not up to him – Farage’s future is in Johnson’s hands.