Nigel Farage is wrong: If the Tories move Right, they will be out for 20 years

British politician Michael Foot looks on, in March 1983
Losing in 83: If the Tories plump for theri equivalent of Michael Foot, they will have given up on power for a generation - John Redman/AP

After the catastrophe of the 1979 defeat to Margaret Thatcher, the Labour Party faced a leadership election between Denis Healey and Michael Foot. Healey had served as Chancellor for five years and defence secretary for six.

He was a political figure of substance, fighting the Labour left, pushing through cuts to borrowing and agreeing – to the humiliation of the government – to budgetary oversight by the IMF in order to secure support for the pound against the dollar.

Foot wrote for the left-wing Tribune newspaper, was an employment minister who had done little to trouble the history books and had been Leader of the House of Commons. He backed unilateral nuclear disarmament, wanted to withdraw from the European Economic Community and had a fine turn of phrase when it came to tickling the erogenous zones of a certain type of Labour voter – voters who occupied the farther Left reaches of the party.

Labour, struggling under the ludicrously false notion that when voters reject you for offering them Spam (a Left agenda for change), the next best thing to do is to offer Double Spam (an even more Left agenda for change), installed Foot as leader.
Three years later, Labour crashed to their worst electoral defeat for 65 years against a Conservative government that had won a war and was enjoying economic growth of 4.2 per cent.

As always, Labour was defeated because voters lost faith in the party’s ability to run the economy and keep the nation safe. Not because they weren’t Left-wing enough. It took 14 years, two more election defeats and the arrival of a consummate centrist before a Labour leader became Prime Minister again.

With the polls increasingly pointing to a calamitous result for the Tories on July 4, thoughts are already turning to what happens on July 5. It will be the Tory equivalent of Healey versus Foot, but from the Right and farther Right, rather than from the Left. One Tory candidate I spoke to this weekend described the fight for the soul of the party as the “mother of all battles”.

The Tory Party which emerges will be important not only to voters who dislike and never voted for Labour or the Lib Dems and opted for Reform UK, but also to the new government. If Sir Keir Starmer has a large majority and the Conservatives set their compass for “further Right”, Labour’s gargantuan hold of the Left and centre of British politics will be complete and unassailable.

You could quite easily imagine 20 years of Labour-flavoured dominance.

This is the question for Nigel Farage and one which he has not yet been asked. If all elections are won from the centre ground, how does the leader of Reform UK build a bigger tent if he really, as he suggests, wants to engineer a reverse takeover of the Conservatives by the time of the 2029 election.

Farage’s foundational problem is that he uses technicolour dividing lines to motivate supporters, not big tentism. Just as the “real Left” is suspicious of “splitters” and “non-Socialists” who are at the top of the clearly pretty successful Labour Party, so Farage exudes disdain for One Nation Conservatives and “wets” who have campaigned for the party their whole lives. They are dismissed as “social democrats”.

Farage, just like Foot before him, tickles the erogenous zones of a certain type of voter. Where Foot waxed lyrical about greater equality and saving the NHS, Farage majors on immigration, Make Britain Great Again and “nothing works”.

Like Foot, to his core audience he is a charismatic, energetic and authentic campaigner during a period of UK politics not blessed with orators and persuaders of any great note. In the Kingdom of the Bland, the sharp-tongued man is king.

“Parties,” Tony Blair argued, “are always in love with emotional impulses.” The problem is, not enough voters are. They rarely engage with politics, are not as passionate about “issues” as politicians like to think they are, and soon forget (Brexit anyone?) subjects that seemed so important only a matter of moments ago.

Nearly 8.5 million people voted for Foot in 1983 – but he still lost. Many millions of people would vote for a Farage-led Conservative Party. But it would never win an election.

The Conservatives have been here before. After the Blair juggernaut swept John Major aside the Tories tried various versions of “more Right”. In 2001, William Hague said the party would “give you back your country” and that Labour would turn the UK into a “foreign land”. Hague lost the election the same year by 412 seats to 166. Michael “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Howard lost in 2005 by 355 seats to 198.

It wasn’t until David Cameron, “hug a hoodie” and “Vote Blue, Go Green” that the public – faced with the alternative prospect of clunking fist Gordon Brown – decided to give the Conservatives the slim benefit of the doubt (with a dash of centrist Lib-Dems thrown in).

The fact is, this is a centrist, little bit Right, nation full of decent people who just want the Government to get on with running the country in a passably competent way.

And if it doesn’t, they will punish you – not because you were not “real Conservatives”, but because you weren’t very good.

Voter faith in the integrity of this Government was crushed by Partygate and the general lack of seriousness of Boris Johnson. It was crushed by Liz Truss, who forgot Thatcher’s maxim “you can’t buck the markets”.

Immigration has risen to record levels despite promises that it would fall. Just 24 per cent of those asked in the British Social Attitudes Survey said they were “satisfied” with the NHS, a record low. In 2010, the figure was 70 per cent.

“Lack of integrity, lack of competence and public services, we always lose on the same things,” said one leading Conservative, fearful that their seat will turn red despite a healthy majority. “No one has said to me, the problem with Rishi Sunak is that he is not Conservative enough.”

Just as Major lost the 1997 election in 1992 and the sterling crisis, parties rarely recover from a competency shock.

A glimmer of hope for the Tories is that Starmer is no Blair and voters are not streaming to Labour with any enthusiasm. Its lead is a mile wide and an inch deep.

They are drifting to Reform UK as a protest vote – wanting to punish the Conservatives for three years of political infighting and psycho-drama. They have heard the “are you thinking what I’m thinking?” and “this is a foreign land” immigration whistle before and are not, ultimately, overly impressed. July 4 is not a single-issue referendum – immigration – but an election for a government.

On July 4, if they lose, and lose as big as many pollsters expect, the Conservatives will have a choice. Attempt “Real Conservatism” and lose the next election as well. Or tack to the centre, and then aim just to the Eight, where all elections are won.

Whatever Nigel Farage says.