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Reality on Hold

Reality on Hold

nigel farage on stage for Reform UK

Voters can be forgiven for rushing for the shelters as they’re carpet-bombed with claims and counterclaims while party leaders criss-cross the country, and one another’s policies. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, nothing really means anything until they make hard and fast promises.

There is, however, one aspect of the manifesto manufacturing machine which does merit attention. The Farage factor.

Goes more or less without saying that the new leader of the Reform Party stuck his stiletto in with deadly precision over Rishi Sunak’s absence from the big event during the D-Day commemorations.

That’s being described as the PM’s biggest misstep of the campaign so far. Of a piece with his announcing the election in pouring rain, then inviting jibes about sinking ships when he turned up at the Titanic centre in Belfast.

But while that row will get lost in the fog of war, the Farage in Charge question won’t.

It’s not even a matter of whether, on his eighth attempt, the nation’s number one Brexit champion actually gets a seat in parliament – though he very likely will – but more a question of how he’ll skew other parties’ thinking.

Worth remembering that he pretty much single-handedly spooked David Cameron into promising a referendum on UK membership of the European Union.

PM ‘Call me Dave’ had cause to repent that at leisure. Indeed, surveys suggest much of the nation now shares that regret.

And with polls indicating that nearly one in three of those who backed Boris Johnson are now minded to side with the pint-toting Nigel’s party, the threat he poses stands out a mile.

No question, the man’s performance at the TV debate on Friday gave a flavour of his star-quality credentials. As well as a reminder of his ‘immigration immigration immigration’ agenda.

An echo there of Tony Blair’s arguably rather more benign ‘education education education’ pitch in the run-up to his spectacular victory in 1997.

And a forceful reminder of what Sunak’s up against as he crafts the list of pledges, as distinct from merely mooted ideas, that he’ll use to try and limit damage to his party on July the fourth.

Which begs the question of whether the Tory manifesto will include something ever so hardline on migration.

Given that the stop-the-boats Rwanda scheme will be flushed away along with, almost certainly, Sunak’s government, the promise of a severe crackdown on legitimate incomers is on the cards.

Meanwhile, it’s thought that Labour’s list of genuine undertakings will likely be confined to higher growth, clean energy, improvements to the NHS, safer streets and social mobility.

But could a nod to Reform’s fiercely hardline agenda also find itself bolted on? We’ll find out in a few days.

Those in charge of activities heavily dependant on migrants, such as the care, construction, and hospitality sectors, not to mention universities, will be watching with trepidation.

Of course, Farage’s decision to stake his claim in Clacton is not without risks. Though it’s commonly dubbed ‘Brexit-on-Sea’ and is officially classified as the most deprived place in Britain, the Tories do have a huge majority there.

Against that, most polls are predicting what may be the Conservatives’ worst result in getting on for two hundred years. Which suggests they hardly have any safe seats anywhere.

And if Farage does manage to place his posterior on the commons green benches, there’s widespread and well-founded speculation that he might try to wrest control of the Tory rump.

It’d take a while, naturally, but could fundamentally reshape British politics in the coming years.

Whether he can walk the walk is an altogether different matter. But few would dispute that he can, like Tony Blair and Boris Johnson, talk the talk.

And whether you regard his message as potent or poisonous, the knack of talking human is a prized and rarely attained asset among our political class.

That’s one thing we learned from the leaders’ debate on the box last week. Just how not good either main party leader is at engaging audiences.

The event was shouty, pouty and hardly edifying in either sense of the word. Neither enlightening nor enriching.

That said, one takeaway did get people talking. Sunak’s claim that, under Labour, taxes would go up by a cool two grand per household.

His assertion that the figure was verified by independent civil servants was immediately challenged by the top Treasury mandarin, and is now being investigated by Whitehall’s official number crunchers.

But while Blair would have stared straight into the cameras and said ‘sorry, but that figure’s just plain wrong’, Starmer stammered around the subject before finally getting in his rebuttal. Thus giving the story legs.

And here’s where the problem of election coverage really heaves into view.

The two-thousand nicker niggle may well have not only stuck in people’s craw but also lingered in their minds, while the agenda hurtled onwards.

As the politicos charge around chucking ideas about like confetti, the hacks file their copy like good boys and girls whether they’ve actually got a story to tell or not. Which, most of the time, they haven’t.

Result being that voters drowning in formulations and speculations are left with just a few hard-fact-shaped life rafts to cling on to. And the amount everyone has to shell out in tax is an obvious one to head for.

For which reason it is worth probing this subject a little more carefully.

First off, Sunak’s central figure is massively less than the hikes we’ve had to put up with since Johnson took office.

Not all the Tories’ fault, mind, by any means. The Covid pandemic, plus the Ukraine war and consequent spike in energy prices, have taken a vicious toll.

And the problem’s ongoing. The official Office for Budget Responsibility points out that both parties are already locked into significant hikes in the coming years.

That’s largely because the main tax-free allowances are being frozen, meaning bigger bills for all once you adjust for inflation and rising wages.

Not that that’s going to stop either side blathering on about how rubbish their opponents are at doing their sums.

The top line is that the Tories reckon Labour’s uncosted plans add up to a thirty-eight billion pound black hole in how they’re going to pay for their whacko wheezes.

Conversely, Starmer’s lot maintain Sunak’s policy portfolio will leave an even bigger shortfall. Forty-six billion, no less.

Behind all that campaigning crassitude, however, there is one standout figure on which most independent economists are minded to agree.

The cumulative cost to the nation on the back of Brexit, they maintain, has left us bereft of no less than one hundred billion pounds. More than both the Tory and Labour finger-wagging wonkiness put together.

Tellingly, neither main party wants to talk about that in the run-up to the election, because of their shared fear of losing wavering voters.

However, if Starmer really does get a resounding victory he may well go there.

And if the man who gifted us Brexit in the first place actually does grab the Tory joystick he’ll be up for the fight, every inch of the way.

But for now, to rejig a line about love penned by Oscar Wilde’s boyfriend over a century ago, it’s the issue that dare not speak its name.

Watch Peter’s report at

Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.

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