Transcript: Campaign catch-up — Farage is back! (2024)

This is an audio transcript of the Political Fix podcast episode: ‘Campaign catch-up: Farage is back!

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Lucy Fisher
Plot twist: Nigel Farage is back. Hello and welcome to Political Fix from the Financial Times with me, Lucy Fisher. I’m delighted to be joined today for our first campaign catch-up of the election. We are going up to twice a week, so we’ll be in your feeds on Tuesdays as well as Fridays with my FT colleagues George Parker. Hi, George.

George Parker
Hi, Lucy.

Lucy Fisher
And Anna Gross. Hi, Anna.

Anna Gross
Hi, Lucy.

Lucy Fisher
So Nigel Farage is back, George — dominated the airwaves, the news bulletins, the front pages. Tell us your assessment of the impact of him wading in and taking this role at the forefront of Reform UK’s campaign.

George Parker
It was a determinative moment in the election campaign. And just a few weeks after, a couple of weeks after he said he wasn’t gonna be taking a leading role in the campaign, suddenly he’s there at the forefront, you know, he basically couldn’t resist the limelight and an opportunity to stick it to the Conservative party, boasting that within a few weeks he thinks that Reform UK will be overtaking the Conservative party in the polls. You know, it’s an extraordinary moment. And just when you thought the campaign couldn’t get any worse for Rishi Sunak, suddenly Farage is there, the Farage show’s back in town, the whole press pack would be down on Clacton Pier, the constituency he’s gonna be fighting. So it’s a terrible day for the Conservative campaign.

Lucy Fisher
And Anna, it really felt like he was enjoying his moment in the limelight, wasn’t he? And I was very struck by his language saying, you know, I’ve changed my mind. It’s allowed, you know. He breaks all the rules around political communication in a way that I think people find very authentic. What’s your assessment of whether he can win in Clacton? There’s also talk about potentially Reform winning other seats like Hartlepool, Boston.

Anna Gross
The sense I am getting from speaking to pollsters yesterday, I think that he, that Reform UK could possibly win Clacton. That’s not even certain and it may only slight . . . There’s only a slight chance or win a second seat, I think, possibly in Hartlepool, as you suggest. But what was interesting is one of the pollsters I spoke to said there could be a sort of five-percentage-point boost for Reform UK from this. And if playing around on the FT’s predictor that if Reform UK were to get a 5 per cent boost, even if that didn’t give them another seat, Labour could go from 449 seats to 475. The Lib Dems could go from 30 seats to 39, and the Tories could go from 135 seats to 99.

Lucy Fisher
OK, complete wipeout territory for the Conservatives and People’s Republic of Keir Starmer for Labour if that were the case. I mean, George, speaking to Tories yesterday, I mean, one former cabinet minister told me all legions of hell had been unleashed on Rishi Sunak. And of course, Anna mentions the FT’s poll tracker. There was this other very detailed MRP poll that dropped from YouGov at 5pm on Monday, just an hour after Farage made his announcement that also had these absolutely terrible numbers for the Conservatives. How is this affecting kind of morale in the campaign?

George Parker
Well, morale was already pretty low. But that was a dark hour, I think, for the Conservative party. And I think we were all getting messages from Conservative MPs saying this is just the worst thing basically that could have happened. We had the Farage announcement he was joining the fray at 4.00 and an hour later, the Sky MRP poll — one of these very, very detailed constituency-level polls — came up predicting that Labour was set for a landslide even bigger than the one Tony Blair enjoyed back in 1997 with the Tories down to about 140 seats. There was another MRP poll published about the same time showing an equally disastrous outcome.

And so, look, I mean, the danger for the Conservative party is when you get bad news layered upon bad news is it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way and things go from bad to worse and morale starts to break down. You start to get briefings about the way the campaign’s being conducted. And that’s the danger, I think, of these events coming together, because all Conservative candidates can look at that YouGov poll for Sky, look at their individual constituencies, and you can see a whole load of big names potentially being wiped out, people like Gillian Keegan, the education secretary down in Chichester, or Jeremy Hunt in Godalming and Ash. I mean, it looks really bad at the moment but, you know, we’re still four weeks out from polling day.

Lucy Fisher
That’s true. And something that struck me, George, is the money troubles that the campaign may run into. I wrote this week about three senior Tory donors who’ve collectively given more than £5mn to the party feeling like they had to take out their own private polling because they were being spun by Tory campaign figures saying, “Don’t believe the public polling. The party’s prospects are much better than is being suggested publicly. You know, we’ve got internal data”. And these donors thought, hmm, not sure about that, commissioned their own private polling and hey presto, found actually, it totally aligned with what we’re seeing in public: that the Tories are headed for an electoral rout.

And on Monday night, the Tories put out a new announcement. We just get a rolling drip feed of announcements, including a pledge to update and amend the Equality Act on Monday. But at the end of the day, the Tories said that they would introduce an immigration cap. Tell us about this. And was this already in the pipeline, do you think, or was it a response to Farage stepping into the fray?

Anna Gross
So to start with, party insiders say it was definitely already in the fray. It was already being worked out, you know; a long time in the works. So the policy is essentially, it’s fairly radical. I spent a bit of time yesterday trying to work out if there were other countries doing similar and the US is the only country I could find that was doing anything that was similar to that.

So the idea is that there would be an annual cap on the number of migrants that could come to the UK, specifically on work visas or family reunion visas and that cap would . . . They guaranteed that cap. Well, it would first of all be voted on in parliament, but they guarantee that it would come down every single year over the next parliament. And so this is a bit of red meat to the right of the party who’ve been calling for this for some time, including former immigration minister Robert Jenrick.

But also, you know, it’s one of the policies — and you can see with quite a few of the kind of radical policies that the Tories have come out with over the past couple of weeks, including making biological sex a protected characteristic — seem to be aimed at galvanising support from the kind of Reform UK voters. And so a lot of it, a lot of this seems, and the immigration one certainly would be, but I think a lot of that has been undermined by Nigel’s announcement yesterday.

Lucy Fisher
Well, George, I see two issues with the immigration announcement and with the announcements in general. The first problem is the Conservatives, anything they put forward, people ask the question, you’ve had 14 years in power. Why are you only coming forward with these solutions now? Why haven’t you grasped these problems earlier?

And with the immigration cap in particular, there’s no figure been put on it, has there? They say they will outsource that to the Migration Advisory Committee, the very same committee that Rishi Sunak sort of suggested only a few weeks ago he’d override when it recommended keeping the graduate visa route when he was looking to potentially get a recommendation from it to back up his desire perhaps to reduce that route. So it’s not really gonna stand up to much versus Nigel Farage’s pledge for zero net migration.

George Parker
Well, no. And as you say, I mean, part of the problem for this is that the Tories have a track record which is pretty ignominious when it comes to controlling migration on their own terms, thinking all the way back to David Cameron’s promise to keep net migration down to the tens of thousands. Then after Brexit, we were in control and net migration spiralled to over 700,000 on the Conservative party’s watch.

So frankly, the public are gonna be incredibly sceptical about new promises of caps, especially, as you say, an unspecific cap of where you might limit the number of visas being issued. And sort of there’s another problem with all this and what Anna was just describing, there is very much a core Tory vote strategy, and it’s about trying to shore up your base. It’s intended to stop people drifting off to Reform UK. But at the same time, the more you do that, and the more you start to look like you’re focusing on issues like transgender issues or bringing back national service, the more danger there is that parts of the moderate part of the Conservative party drift off to Labour, or indeed the Liberal Democrats in the south.

And the whole strategy has been, to have Tory strategists on a previous campaign say, that all the announcements so far tell you that this is not an election that Rishi Sunak thinks he’s going to win. It’s entirely about damage limitation, which when you think of the psyche of Rishi Sunak, that’s quite surprising, isn’t it, because, you know, I’ve always thought that Rishi Sunak would probably be the last person in the building who still thought he could win this election. He’s won stuff all his life. I mean, it must be a massive psychological wrench for him to be running a campaign where people around him, even though they don’t say it, know this is all about damage limitation and working on the assumption that he’ll be out of Downing Street on July the 5th.

Lucy Fisher
I think that’s a really interesting observation. And I would say from my perspective, on the flip side of the coin, in the past week or so, we’ve seen Keir Starmer grow in stature. And it’s not so much a change in him, but the way people around him are sort of interacting with him. I’ve just noticed in clips, whether it’s, you know, fine, party supporters, but he looks more prime ministerial the way that people are kind of showing him reverence because they believe the polls that he’s headed into Downing Street.

Anna, let’s just touch on Labour very briefly then. The big theme this week has been defence. They’ve unveiled 14 candidates with a military background, including Al Carns, a name I think we’re gonna hear a lot more about, who was awarded the Military Cross, one of the highest medals for bravery in Afghanistan. Do you think he’s done enough to shore up Labour’s reputation on defence? And how much of a problem is it Angela Rayner coming out and saying that she still supports nuclear disarmament in a multilateral sense.

Anna Gross
Well, I think it’s a bit of a problem and it also feeds into what happened last week with Angela Rayner kind of contradicting what Keir Starmer had said on Diane Abbott and whether she should be allowed to run.

I think in general, I would say that what’s quite stark is the difference between Sunak and Starmer in terms of the policies that they’re coming out with. Sunak has come up with a load of different sort of glitzy new policies whereas Starmer’s essentially a lot of what he said is roughly or broadly what’s already been said — whether it’s on Great Britain, you know, creating a new publicly owned Great British Energy company; whether it’s putting 13,000 neighbourhood police in communities.

So I think essentially the sense I get is that nothing, in terms of policy proposals that he’s put forward, have really moved the dial. But then neither do they have to. So, yeah, I think and I think, I mean, the most damaging thing for him is what happened last week in terms of the kind of flip-flopping and lack of clarity over what appeared to be an attempt to purge leftwing candidates from his party. But I think, ultimately, you know, that frustrated people. But it would, you know, he’ll be able to kind of move on from that.

George Parker
You can see why it’s such a controlled campaign, can’t you, judging by the way how candid they are in dealing with unexpected things coming up. I mean, the Diane Abbott incident being the case in point. They allowed that to run for a whole week before finally allowing her to run. I mean, it was just . . . And, you know, things like Angela Rayner’s occasional interventions. It does make you wonder about the control they have at the centre and Keir Starmer’s ability to look around corners, which is why this is such a controlled campaign. And as Anna said, a campaign where they’ve said virtually nothing new that we didn’t know already and we’re nearly two weeks into the campaign.

Anna Gross
You do get a sense sometimes that there’s a group of people around Starmer who fail to see the kind of bigger picture, who are constantly sort of pumping him up and telling him things are gonna be fine, you know, you’re doing a great job and not kind of seeing what the reaction is gonna be more broadly to some of what he’s done, including last week, it seemed to be such a big mis-step to not realise that there would be a very big, public reaction to any attempt to sort of block Diane Abbott from standing.

Lucy Fisher
Well, to me it seemed what happened was there’d been a deal negotiated by both sides that, you know, she wanted to retire, she could be allowed back into the party to retire with dignity, given she was such a symbolic figure — Britain’s first female black MP and such a trailblazer.

And then, as it’s been sort of suggested to me by Labour insiders, there was a breach of faith on potentially both sides. And not necessarily the principals negotiating that deal, but other people in both camps — people who, you know, on the right of the party don’t like Diane and people, you know, on the wider left who thought, no, we can’t let that seat go, Hackney North and Stoke Newington, because of course, Labour HQ will parachute in a Starmer loyalist and we’ll lose yet another leftwinger in the parliamentary Labour party. So I think perhaps that’s what happened. And I can believe that version of events. But to my mind, it does tell us something about Starmer’s grip on his party. And although, you know, he likes to tell us how ruthless he is, maybe, you know, his judgment and authority is not quite what he thinks it is.

Anna Gross
And as George said, that it took so long for him to get on top of the narrative after that. You know, you can see this has not gone to plan for whatever reason. But then you could sort of, you could have clawed it back and it wouldn’t have dominated all of the headlines for the entire week.

George Parker
Not that it’s done a great deal of damage, as far as we can tell in the opinion polls.

Lucy Fisher
That’s very true. Anna, you’re a big Lib Dem watcher and this week, as well as all the goofy photo shoots with Ed Davey, we’ve had a policy on care, free at-home personal care for disabled and older people, and raised wages for carers. And actually, I think Ed Davey’s got a bit more cut through on that policy and speaking to my mind in a very emotive way about his role as a carer for his son and, you know, what might happen to his son after, you know, he and his wife are no longer around. Tell us a bit about how you think the Lib Dems are doing and how this policy is breaking through.

Anna Gross
Yeah, I think that I actually think, and I know that not everyone agrees with me on this, that Ed Davey and the Lib Dems in general are running quite an astute campaign and that on a national level, there’s kind of two things that they’re doing, it seems.

There’s on the one hand, they’ve got their care policies and they’re putting forward Ed’s very, as you mentioned, very powerful story that he cares for his own son who has special needs, but he also cares for his wife, has some caring responsibilities for his wife who has MS. And he was a carer for his mother as well when he was growing up. And that is a quite powerful story and it does appear to be having cut through and getting picked up. And it is also a vehicle for him to talk about their care, their NHS policies and their care policies.

And then on the other side, he’s sort of doing quite a lot of these gimmicks. And they are not to everyone’s taste — you know, falling in the river in Windermere to raise awareness about sewage. I don’t know if you saw him photobombing. It wasn’t him. It was Daisy Cooper, the deputy leader of the Lib Dems, who photobombed Sunak yesterday.

Lucy Fisher
I did actually genuinely laugh at that.

Anna Gross
Yeah, I know. (Laughter)

George Parker
It was a very British electoral scene, wasn’t it? This bucolic riverside, Sunak’s having a cup of tea and sort of this Lib Dem boat goes by. I agree with Anna. I think they’re running quite a good campaign. Some people think they’re being excessively frivolous and but, you know, the Lib Dems have to do what they can to get attention.

And it’s interesting they’ve selected a number of policies which aren’t necessarily sort of things you would necessarily think about sort of being the big issues facing the country, including pollution in water and caring. But they’ve made, got a few distinctive issues.

And I think the sort of or the goofing around by Ed Davey, though it’s not to everyone’s tastes. And I think there has been some criticisms on appearances, who just think the whole thing’s a great laugh. One of the things that keeps coming back when we speak to voters or when you look at opinion polls is how depressed everyone is by British politics at the moment — the lack of optimism, the sort of just the plague on all your houses. And actually having someone out campaigning with a smile on their face, I think actually is probably quite a refreshing thing and will get them a bit more notice than otherwise would have been the case.

Lucy Fisher
I think you’re right. To me it’s a leaf out of the Boris Johnson Tiggerish playbook. And I was quite interested, speaking to a pretty hard-nosed senior Tory insider who I expected to be scornful of this approach, actually saying they thought it was very shrewd that the Lib Dems number one mission has to be to appear non-threatening. And, you know, this very joyful, jolly scenes of Ed Davey out and about is well-placed to kind of achieve that.

Anna Gross
Yeah. And it just struck me yesterday, you know, Nigel, I also just sort of from a practical perspective, it’s a good tactic because if you look at Nigel Farage, his party is unlikely to win more than two seats. And yet he has stolen the headlines and probably will do for the rest of the week. He will dominate the press. The Lib Dems could win 30, potentially even 40 seats, according to that poll, the Sky poll yesterday. And they struggled to get any headlines. And, you know, party insiders will complain about that to me. And so they kind of do have to rely sometimes on these gimmicky things.

Lucy Fisher
A final word then about the TV debates. So that’s coming up on Tuesday evening. George, there’s so much riding on this for the Tories. They’ve not done a good job of expectation management about how much this debate can change, have they?

George Parker
Well, I mean, yesterday I was speaking to people close to Sunak who said look, we don’t think this is gonna be a game-changer. But frankly, they need a game-changer because the campaign is drifting badly. This failed to get any momentum.

And when we talk about TV debates, we often think about, you know, the big one that we all remember, if you’re old enough to remember the 2010 election — the first one we had in this country when “Clegg-mania” took off. And that’s kind of fixed in people’s minds as a sort of, you know, how these TV debates can change the political weather. And of course, Clegg-mania was a bubble which burst later on in that campaign.

But subsequent to that and all the elections we’ve been having these debates, it’s hard to think of one where the whole political mood has changed that much. It’ll be fascinating to see how the debate develops. The Labour briefing ahead of time is that Keir Starmer is gonna sort of relive his role as a prosecutor, going back to the old CPS days and prosecute the role that Rishi Sunak had as chancellor and looking back over the whole Tory record over the last 14 years.

I think what we’ll see from the Conservatives will be an attempt to say that Keir Starmer is someone who doesn’t really have a clear plan for the country, that the Tories have been setting out their own policies. But I expect the gloves will come off and I think there will be some quite personal attacks on Keir Starmer, because when you’re in the situation that Rishi Sunak’s in, you’ve got to plant seeds of doubts in the voters’ minds about the personal characteristics of the person you expect to be in Downing Street in a month’s time. So I expect it will be quite a bare knuckle fight up in Manchester tonight.

Lucy Fisher
And I agree with George. I think it’s gonna be ad hominem attacks, trading insults. Is that just gonna turn the public off? And also, how many people do you think are actually even gonna watch these debates?

Anna Gross
I think a good proportion of people. I actually don’t know the stats on how many people. I’d be fascinated to . . . 

Lucy Fisher
I’ve seen suggestions that 30 per cent of people are likely to sort of receive some cut-through from the debate.

Anna Gross
I think that people . . . This is the kind of a key moment where people plug in in a way that they haven’t. You know, we get a bit lost in these narratives, like for example, the Diane Abbott and purging of the left last week. I don’t think most people have any clue that was going on. I think this is the moment they are gonna be checking in.

My sense is that, my guess is based on some of the performances we’ve seen so far in interviews over the past couple of weeks is that Sunak will do a bit better than Starmer. I think that Starmer can, you know, he can sort of take on the prosecutorial role, but he also can get really sort of caught up in the weeds of policy and end up sounding quite technocratic and I think just lose people’s interest, whereas Sunak . . . 

And I know also, you know, historically, polling on these kinds of debates that the underdog does tend to do better. And Sunak is undeniably the underdog here. And I think he could present himself. There’s a risk he’ll sound, he’ll seem a bit kind of tetchy because he does when he’s under attack. But I also think he could sort of come out as a scrappy underdog with all the new policies and new flashy ideas, whereas Starmer sounds a bit stodgy and he’s sort of been talking about a lot of the things he’d been talking about for many months.

George Parker
I think the advice that Keir Starmer has been getting, I was speaking to Peter Mandelson, the former Labour cabinet minister, and he was basically saying that Starmer needs to avoid being dragged into the ad hominem stuff. He needs to rise above it, project a prime ministerial, statesmanlike air, and I suspect that’s what he will do. The danger is he looks a bit stodgy, as Anna was saying, but I think from Starmer’s point of view, he will stick to the policies and the facts and avoid being drawn into the hand-to-hand combat.

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Lucy Fisher
Well, I’m looking forward to this first head-to-head debate between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition. We’ll come back with some analysis of that later in the week and look ahead to the first bigger debate with seven parties represented, although not the two principal leaders, that’s happening on Friday night. But for now, thank you George Parker and Anna Gross for joining.

George Parker
Thanks for having us.

Anna Gross
Thanks, Lucy.

Lucy Fisher
Well, that’s it for the first campaign catch-up of Political Fix this election campaign. Just to remind you, we’ll be back in your feeds every Friday and Tuesday throughout the campaign.

I’ve put links to subjects discussed in this episode in the show notes. Do check them out. They’re articles we’ve made free for Political Fix listeners. There’s also a link there to Stephen’s award-winning Inside Politics newsletter, and you’ll get 30 days free. And don’t forget to subscribe to the show. Plus, if you can leave a review or star rating, we’d really appreciate it because it helps us spread the word to new listeners.

Political Fix was presented by me, Lucy Fisher, and produced by Persis Love. Manuela Saragosa is the executive producer. Original music and sound engineering by Breen Turner. Mix by Simon Panayi. Cheryl Brumley is the FT’s global head of audio. We’ll meet again here on Friday.

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Transcript: Campaign catch-up — Farage is back! (2024)
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