Sunak's greatest mistake was not to neutralise Farage

Split image. Left image: Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. Right image: Nigel Farage.
Credit: PA

In the weeks BF - before the return of Farage - it was a commonplace among MPs and commentators that the UK was a wonderful anomaly: there would be an election dominated by two mainstream centrist parties with technocratic leaders, with nary a right-wing populist insight.

Weren't we the superior lucky ones? So they chuckled. Just look at the chaos caused by the populists and extremists in the US, France, Germany and Scandinavia, and across swathes of Eastern Europe.

Britain, as usual, was the superior exception, they swanked.

Well since Nigel Farage seized control of Reform and chose to stand as an MP, they're chuckling and swanking no longer. Depending on your opinion poll of choice, somewhere between one-in-eight and one-in-five of those likely to vote will back Reform.

And at least one consequence, whether or not Reform eventually garners more real votes than the Tories, is that Labour's margin of expected victory may be the biggest in modern political history.

Subscribe free to our Election Briefing newsletter here for exclusive and original campaign coverage from ITV News. Direct to your inbox at 5pm every weekday

Farage's comeback tour is the significant event of an election campaign that Rishi Sunak did not have to call. Farage’s hoovering-up of the support of those who feel abandoned by the Tories - and to a lesser extent by Labour - has significant implications.

The first, as I said in yesterday's edition of the Talking Politics podcast, is it highlights the most far-reaching political error Rishi Sunak has made since becoming prime minister - which was his failure to neutralise Farage before calling the election.

This is no small whoopsy. Farage's gleeful vow is to destroy the Conservative Party (an ambition he paradoxically shares with Sunak's erstwhile mentor Dominic Cummings who loathes Farage - but that is a story for another day).

The point is that over the past 18 months or so, Sunak could have shifted the Tories rightward and made Reform redundant, or moved them to the centre and turned his fire on them with the ferocity he showed to Labour.

Instead he appeased Reform and the right of his party with a series of "lite" Faragist policies - symbolised by his critical position on the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) and its associated Strasbourg court that seemingly endorsed the criticisms of Reform and the right of his own party, while refusing to concede to their pressure to withdraw from the Convention.

He gave credibility to Reform while refusing to adopt their positions, such as that authorised immigration should fall to net zero.

In not being able to bring himself to say that their approach would tank the economy and turn the UK into something of an international outcast, Sunak left the impression that Farage and Reform were making an important argument.

What voters saw was a Conservative Party at war with itself on these issues, split between Braverman and Cameron, and a leader unable - some of his MPs said too weak - to pick a side.

Sunak also created the impression of being frightened of Farage, when Farage bowled into Tory conference last autumn and the prime minister refused to say that the man who had done so much damage to his party, and continued to savage it from his then platform on GB News, would never be a welcome member.

Even now, and even in the face of Farage's explicit mission to consign the Conservative Party to the dustbin of history (listen to what he said to me on the Peston show on the night the election was announced), Sunak chooses not to attack Farage and Reform directly. Instead he pleads that a vote for Reform is a vote to give the Labour Party an even bigger majority.

This feels self-harming. Sunak is saying that Labour has won and that wannabe Reform voters have the power to determine Starmer's margin of victory.

This might deter a few of them from backing Farage. But more likely they will simply hear that the game is up for the Tories, so they have nothing to lose by voting with their hearts for Reform.

There is the rub. And almost as much for Labour, as for the Tories.

Let's conduct a thought experiment that is plausible on the basis of recent polls, that Labour ends up with an unassailable margin of victory of circa 200 with a share of the vote less than 40%.

Put to one side the charge from Sunak that this would make Starmer even more irresponsible than he would otherwise be. Ignore the scaremongering of Starmer as the socialist dictator. Focus on how such a result would degrade our first-past-the post electoral system.

If Labour were to win so huge, on the back of the votes of perhaps just a quarter of those eligible to vote, pressure at that point for electoral reform would be real, a populist movement and possibly irresistible - led, or so he says, by Farage, in an unorthodox alliance with the Greens and Lib Dems.

But there is something else just as significant for Labour. Reform's surge is the final confirmation that tribal loyalties to political parties, rather than to issues (like Brexit, or fighting climate change), are shallow, few and far between.

It means that if Labour disappoints fast or slow in government, its lead in the polls could melt away as quickly as snow in a globally warmed mid winter.

The pollution in the air at this election is the widespread belief that all politics is broken, and that politicians always let us down.

If Labour and Starmer break whatever wary and sceptical trust voters may place in them, they may find their expected landslide victory guarantees them no longer in office than Boris Johnson's handsome triumph in 2019 has seemingly yielded for his party.

It is all very well for Starmer to set expectations relatively low for what a Labour government could achieve in the short term. But he is telling the British people he represents "change", which does not sound modest.

If in fact Starmer delivers more of the same, his apotheosis may be just as short as Johnson's.

Have you heard our new podcast Talking Politics? Every day in the run-up to the election Tom, Robert and Anushka dig into the biggest issues dominating the political agenda…