Despite being busy supporting the Trump campaign in the US, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has kept one eye trained on the British political scene. Never one to miss an opportunity for disruption, Farage’s attention now turns to being “an opposition voice to lockdown”.
Farage’s Brexit Party will be renamed “Reform UK” and its primary focus will be opposing coronavirus restrictions in the UK. The decision was announced just as England entered its second national lockdown in a year, prohibiting most social gatherings and enforcing a wide range of non-essential business closures.
This is, of course, not the first time Farage has used his cult-like populist status to harness the power of voter discontent in a time of crisis to pressure government. This time he has sensed that confusion over the pandemic is driving distrust of government. Sections of the public appear to be particularly responsive to suggestions that experts are producing “dodgy data” rather than grappling with a never-before-seen problem.
Although Reform UK is launching with an anti-lockdown message, it’s continuing the Brexit Party’s broader goal to “change politics for good”.
The Brexit party promised a “political revolution”. It called for electoral reform to end Labour and Conservative dominance in Westminster and abolition of the House of Lords. Following the 2016 Brexit vote it also wanted referendums to become a common part of British decision-making.
Reform UK looks set to continue this trend. Having a rallying cause like opposing lockdown can be seen as a useful way to build an identity in the post-Brexit world.
The big question is who Reform UK is appealing to. Libertarian Conservative types who disagree with the government’s draconian stance are obvious targets but the party could have appeal beyond older groups.
Reform UK’s anti-government grievances focus on “businesses and jobs being destroyed” by lockdown. With UK unemployment rising, this message may also strike a chord with working-class voters fearing ongoing precarity.
Opponents to lockdown policies are also generally younger and not characteristic Brexiteers. A recent poll showed 32% of people aged 18-24 oppose lockdown, compared to 20% of over-65s. Asked about a potential Christmas lockdown, 55% of people aged 65+ said they weren’t fussed about it while 41% of 18-to-24-year-olds said the same.
Events such as the “prison-like” fencing-in of students at the University of Manchester as part of coronavirus restrictions have the potential to increase antagonism towards lockdown among younger voters. Brexit party chairman Richard Tice appeared to recognise as much by tweeting about the incident.
And with current Labour leader Keir Starmer supporting lockdown, it could be that Reform UK spots an opportunity to win over younger Labour voters who oppose the government’s approach. We should also note that the Brexit Party has been branching out much further across the political spectrum than its largely right-wing predecessor UKIP. Farage may not carry much personal appeal for younger Labour voters but his team now counts the likes of left-wing peer Claire Fox among its ranks.
Despite all this, beyond the immediate desire to return to normality, its hard to imagine younger voters switching allegiances for the long term, especially with Farage as leader.
Reform UK is fighting an uphill battle. After all, the Conservatives have a strong majority, and the next general election isn’t due until 2024. But forthcoming local elections in May 2021 provide the potential for breakthrough and Farage has form here, having returned 163 UKIP councillors in the 2014 local elections.
Furthermore, Farage formed the Brexit Party and quickly led it to an unlikely victory in the 2019 European elections. That indicates the potential for possible upset. While this success was not repeated in the following general election, the Brexit Party still claimed some of the victory when former prime minister Theresa May was ousted in favour of a pro-Brexit Boris Johnson government.
With growing discontent in Johnson’s handling of Brexit and COVID, Farage and his team appear to sense that this a good moment to surge forward. The populist simplicity of opposing lockdown is a strong antidote to the increasingly confusing and fluctuating demands of controlling COVID. Even though public sentiment against lockdown remains limited, shy sceptics may soon fall for Farage’s charm. The longer this crisis persists, the stronger anti-establishment forces like Reform UK could become.
Electoral victories may seem unlikely but the Brexit Party thrived on exerting pressure by threatening to split the vote in battleground areas. Reform UK could do similar in order to push Johnson’s government into coronavirus policy concessions. A recent series of U-turns, including on free school meals, shows leadership instability. Sensing weakness and further government failure on COVID, Farage and co are ready to pounce. That could herald significant disruption to the lockdown consensus.