Tories need Nigel Farage – but he doesn’t need them, says Ann Widdecombe
Rishi Sunak’s “panicking” Conservative Party needs Nigel Farage – but he does not need them, former Tory minister Ann Widdecombe has said.
The Prime Minister bought himself a reprieve when MPs backed his Rwanda Bill in the Commons earlier this week. However, Ms Widdecombe believes Reform UK, of which she is now a member, nevertheless represents an “existential threat” to her former party at the next general election.
Tuesday was a day of high drama in Westminster, with Mr Sunak pulling out all the stops to ensure the legislation passed its second reading, which it did by 313 votes to 269 – a majority of 44. He responded by tweeting: “The British people should decide who gets to come to this country – not criminal gangs or foreign courts. That’s what this Bill delivers.”
Nevertheless, significant hurdles remain, given Mr Sunak needs to keep different factions on both the right and left of his party happy. Those in the European Research Group, for example, chaired by Mark Francois, abstained from the vote, believing the Bill must include a commitment to ignore the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) in order to work effectively. However, so-called One Nation Tories have made it clear such a move would put their future support in jeopardy.
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Ms Widdecombe, the former Conservative MP for Maidstone and more recently a Brexit Party MEP, said: “It was a victory in the sense that for once Rishi Sunak managed to persuade his party to act as one.
“He had rebels, but he managed to persuade the party to put its differences aside and unite in a vote. Now frankly, that’s a major achievement given the state it’s in at the moment.
“We’ve still got all the rest of the bill to go through, we’ve got the amendments to get through and all the rest of it and there are going to be massive divisions and they may lose some, I don’t know.
“But he’s got through the main Bill and frankly, that is an achievement thought it would just pass but it happened by a much bigger majority than I expected.”
However, what was not clear was what Mr Sunak had needed to tell MPs to get enough of them to back the Bill, Ms Widdecombe stressed, suggesting that many of them were likely to have been motivated by “panic”.
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She explained: “I think this is purely about survival. There would have been a confidence vote if they’d lost, it would have been more chaos, it would have worsened the polls.
“There is an election next year. I mean, you know, for once you managed to persuade them to focus on that.”
Tory MPs are also likely to be mindful of the impact of Mr Farage, especially in the light of a poll published by JL Partners this week indicating that he was more popular among 2019 Conservative voters than Mr Sunak. Such is the 59-year-old’s influence, that it has even been claimed he might make an unlikely return to the party he has not been a member of since 1992 – but Ms Widdecombe was sceptical.
She said: “I don’t think he wants to. Of course, he’s more popular with Tory voters. They only voted for Boris Johnson a few years ago, with the slogan Get Brexit Done. So of course Farage is more popular with Tory voters, but that doesn’t mean that he wants to rejoin the Tory Party, it just means the Tory Party wishes they had him.
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“As for this so-called ‘dream ticket’ idea with him and Boris Johnson I’m not sure how that would work. Which one of them would be Prime Minister?”
With “momentum” behind him, Mr Farage was likely to campaign strongly for Reform UK over the next 12 months, Ms Widdecombe continued.
She said: “I don’t think he will stand as a candidate – I want him campaigning for Reform UK. I think he will be more useful going up and down the country during the election campaign than confined to a constituency.”
Whenever that general election was called, it was clear her new party – led by Richard Tice, also a former Brexit Party MEP – would represent an “existential threat” to the Tories, Ms Widdecombe stressed.
She said: “If you look at the polls, at the beginning of the year Reform was just on a few percent. We’re now regularly in double figures – one poll even hit 12 percent and we’re regularly at 10 or 11.
“The Conservatives equally regularly are dipping below 20 and getting 19 or something. And so we’re within touching distance of them. And once that becomes obvious to the electorate, then we become a serious prospect rather than just a protest vote.”
In a tweet on Wednesday, Mr Farage himself highlighted the JL Partners poll, which put his net approval rating among Tories at +18, compared with -4 for Mr Sunak.
Mr Farage, now back in the UK after his stint on I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here in Australia, said: “It’s very flattering, a little bit bewildering. It’s gonna take some time for me to sort of really take it on board. But fascinating, right?”
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