The Irish Times view on the UK election: reckoning with the Farage factor

The Irish Government would welcome the calmer atmosphere a Labour government would bring, but would also be mindful of the support for Farage and its potential longer-term implications

Reform UK leader Nigel Farage speaks during a visit to Cheshire, on the general election campaign trail on Thursday. (Photo: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire)

There is a conventional wisdom held by a large swathe of the British political establishment that the UK would never move to the far right. The rationale is that British people are inherently pragmatic and distrustful of extremes, which, combined with a first-past-the-post voting system, ensures that the centre ground will hold sway.

Whatever about the merits of these arguments in the past, they no longer stand up to scrutiny. The right wing of the ruling Conservative Party, which shares many characteristics with far-right nationalist parties throughout the EU and Donald Trump’s MAGA movement in the US, has been in the ascendancy since the Brexit referendum in 2016.

Now, however, according to the opinion polls, the Tories are heading towards electoral annihilation in the UK general election on July 4th. But the danger posed by the far right does not end with the Conservative Party’s likely defeat.

This week Nigel Farage’s Reform Party unveiled its “contract” with the British people ahead of the election. It is a shameless mix of populism and economic illiteracy. For example, it pledges £88 billion in tax cuts, which will be funded by eliminating £50 billion a year in government waste and £35 billion by reducing the amount of interest the Bank of England pays on commercial bank deposits.

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Most reputable economic forecasting bodies have rubbished these figures. In reality, Reform is likely to win one seat in the election and that is the one Farage is contesting in Clacton. However, when Farage was leader of the UK Independence Party, it had negligible success in Westminster elections, yet it played a key role in forcing David Cameron, the then prime minister, to call the Brexit referendum.

Farage could wield even greater influence in the future. According to a number of polls, the Reform Party is on level pegging with the Conservatives. After the election, there is likely to be a sizeable rump of Conservatives who believe their future lies with a formal alliance with Farage.

The Labour Party would face significant challenges in government. There is a politically toxic combination of high levels of inequality with low levels of growth. It is not clear where Labour would get the level of funding needed to invest in state services and infrastructure. If it failed to convince the electorate in government, then support for right wing English nationalism could grow, with unpredictable consequences.

There is nothing inevitable about what happens in Britain over the coming years. The Irish Government would welcome the calmer atmosphere a Labour government would bring, but would also be mindful of the support for Farage and the longer-term implications for the Conservative party.