If the convolutions of recent months haven’t put you off political betting for life, you’ll be interested to hear that Paddy Power is currently offering 16-1 odds that Nigel Farage will become Prime Minister by 2025.
It’s not as outlandish as it sounds. I get the distinct sense from my Westminster contacts that the political sands are still shifting, and all the old certainties are gone – except of course that in times of flux, there’s always an opportunity for a charismatic leader who speaks to the common person and airs their grievances.
We will see this play out in the European election, where for once, voters may believe that there is the opportunity to break the duopoly of Labour and the Conservatives.
With Farage, there is a highly effective politician able to mobilise swathes of the middle class men and women who don’t live in London or other "elite" locations and who would like to reset the direction of the country to rebalance wealth, reduce immigration and shift to non-Metropolitan values which they are more comfortable with - to capture the spirit of England in the World Cup in 2018 and to make them feel proud once more rather than humiliated by the French and Germans.
Against that powerful narrative, the Tories are in disarray, and Labour’s metropolitan socialism doesn’t line up with the views of people outside the capital, with the social conservatism, the dislike of rule from London, the dislike of the consolidation of the economy towards financial and knowledge services based in the capital or places like Cambridge, the desire to be taken seriously and valued. Voters aren’t looking for an economic revolution, they are looking for a stake in the future.
On the pure Remainer side of politics meanwhile, there is no unified voice. The Lib Dems, Change UK, the Greens, Tom Watson’s wing of Labour and the Tory wets are all fishing in the same pond for the same voters.
The road to Downing Street
With that in mind, the 2025 horizon for Farage as PM is interesting. This isn’t a passing opportunity for him. The longer the impasse continues, the more the main parties disagree and prevaricate, the more that a head of steam will develop for a different form of England.
If the Brexit Party can surge in the upcoming elections and Westminster cannot respond, then there will be a solid foundation to build upon, which is ironic since David Cameron promised the EU referendum in 2015 on the back of a strong Farage-led UKIP performance in the last European elections, fearing losing Conservative voters.
This narrative doesn’t go away if the withdrawal agreement is delivered, if there’s another referendum or a soft Brexit occurs. In fact, it intensifies until wealth is felt to be redistributed to the English regions.
Since the EU has been supporting infrastructure in less wealthy areas and the UK economy is not predicted to improve over the short to medium term, then it may get worse and it will be easy to argue that the Brexit dividend had been stolen by Westminster and kept by the elite.
I think this could lead to civil unrest. It would certainly help a charismatic, clever politician to build a strong core of support with which to build a long-term power base.
It also doesn’t have to be the Brexit Party, although it’s currently best placed – it could be something else that emerges. On both the left and right there is talk of "people’s assemblies" – I think the Extinction Rebellion climate change protestors are holding some this week – so it doesn’t take a leap of faith to see this narrative catching on, of common sense and new types of democracy breaking the deadlock.
If the Brexit Party does make headway, Farage would of course need to become an MP (odds 3-1 in the next election) before he’d have a shot of becoming PM, and there would necessarily need to be an interim step of either a Labour government or a wounded Conservative administration. But either an experiment in Marxist thinking and nationalisation or a customs union fudge could drive the economic downturn and strengthen his narrative, which could tap into both working and middle class people.
Canny leadership required
I think it is very interesting that Farage has gone about savaging UKIP as extremists as his first act. He wants to position this new party as on the side of decent, hard working people. It is possible if the Brexit Party does well on 23 May that it might prompt defections from the Tories. Farage might not want that however - he could be better off staying out of Westminster for the time being, let them stew in their own juices while allowing frustration to rise and then strike at the right moment. He will also be wary of a Westminster presence built on defectors.
If the main parties muddle along as they have been, he could target sitting Remainers at the next election and mobilise a lot of seats, leave off the Tory true believers and work with them in a coalition.
The big question is whether he has the management skills to build a party. Farage has failed there in the past. If he fails again, the door remains open for another leader who can build that movement. The parties and the politics might change, but the underlying disenfranchisement remains and that presents an opportunity to secure a lot of votes if done right. I can see a majority behind it by 2030.
And what would a Farage premiership look like, for business and everyone else? There would be a tension between traditional free market values and the need to improve life in the left-behind regions, as well as increased separatist tension between the UK nations. The new PM would therefore be addressing structural problems bigger than any one leader’s charisma or ability. And if you want to know what all that looks like, you need only look at what’s playing out right now with Donald Trump in the United States.
Image credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr (Creative Commons)