This year, the brand new Brexit Party crashed into the United Kingdom’s political landscape. It was launched in April by Nigel Farage — who US President Donald Trump has called, in admiration, “the man behind Brexit” — after the UK’s departure from the European Union was delayed at the end of March.
Farage has campaigned for three decades for Britain to leave the EU and used to be the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Just a few weeks after it was officially launched, his Brexit party became the leading UK party in the European elections in May, pushing the centre-right Conservative party into a humiliating fifth place.
The ramifications of Farage’s new outfit have been huge. Within a couple of months, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May had resigned and the more devoutly right-wing Brexiteer Boris Johnson had taken over. Johnson promised that the UK would leave the EU on October 31, with or without a withdrawal agreement — the latter option being Farage’s favoured “no deal” scenario. But Johnson could not keep his promise, and a general election has now been called for December 12. In a bid to fend off the challenge of the Brexit Party, Johnson has plunged the Conservatives to the right and, in a shock move, even sacked 21 centre-right Conservative MPs, including Theresa May’s former chancellor.
The bête noire haunting Johnson’s rightwards lurch is Farage — his insurgent party seems to be having as much external influence on the Conservatives as Johnson himself. Farage has even been pushing hard for a “Leave alliance” between the Brexit Party and the Conservatives. On Monday, he dropped the bombshell that the Brexit Party would not be standing in the 317 seats that the Conservative Party currently holds, to avoid splitting the Leave vote in the election, and potentially scuppering Brexit if other pro-Remain parties win. While on the surface it’s a significant climbdown, it in fact signals that a Leave alliance between the Conservatives and the Brexit Party is effectively now in place. It’s also a sign of how closely aligned Farage and Johnson’s Conservatives have become, even if Johnson has resisted publicly endorsing such a partnership.
Back in August, Steven Woolfe, a former UKIP Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and previous leadership contender, told me: “The Brexit Party looks like it’s a Conservative party in waiting.” But as Woolfe also pointed out, Farage’s plans far predate the Brexit Party. Ever since his UKIP heyday, Farage has been trying to reshape the British right. What is less known is that there was a specific source of inspiration for Farage and his allies: they call it the “Canada model.”
“For years they’ve talked about becoming the small Canada party that took over the Conservative Party,” Woolfe said, referring to the populist right Reform Party that challenged and eventually eclipsed the Canadian Conservatives starting in the late 1980s. “They feel that they can do that here if Brexit isn't achieved by Boris [Johnson],” Woolfe said.
Now, with Brexit delayed once again, and Farage proposing to prop up a future Johnson government in return for an electoral pact, it seems the Canada model is finally being executed.
The parallels are striking. The Reform Party was founded in the late 1980s to combat the socially liberal direction the Progressive Conservative party had taken and to infuse more representation from Western Canada into federal politics. The party called for tax cuts, a tougher approach to law and order, and more direct democracy in the form of referendums, while opposing multiculturalism — almost identical to Farage’s ideology. Farage has also been opposed to some of the more socially liberal positions supported by some UK conservatives, such as on gay marriage.
“There are some interesting aspects [of the Reform Party] which had an impact on radical British conservatives,” says Roger Eatwell, who recently co-wrote a book called National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. “In spite of the support of some rich business people, the Reform Party was suspicious of traditional parties and had direct democracy aspects.”
Crucially, the Reform Party also called for fundamental reforms of Canada’s democratic institutions, such as the Senate. At the Brexit Party’s campaign launch on November 1, chairman Richard Tice called for the replacement of the UK parliament’s House of Lords with a new elected upper chamber and for more direct democracy.
In 1993, under the leadership of Preston Manning, the Reform Party overtook the Progressive Conservative Party as the biggest party on the right, rebranded as the Canadian Alliance in 2000, and in 2003 finally merged with the Progressive Conversatives to form what remains the Conservative Party of Canada.
Farage and key allies have been talking about realizing a similar blending of rightist parties since at least 2014. Back then, UKIP was basking in the glory of having won the European elections and thrashing the Conservatives, just like the Brexit Party has recently managed. Then-Prime Minister David Cameron was desperate to see off the UKIP challenge and promised to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. But right-wing politicians feared that ongoing divisions would hand power to the centre-left Labour Party, as had happened in Canada with the Liberals after the Reform Party’s rise. They started to talk about uniting the right.
As Matthew Goodwin writes in his book UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics, discussions about an alliance were rife. One notorious right-wing Conservative, Michael Fabricant, circulated a paper promoting “a final rapprochment of warring brothers” — he wanted UKIP-ers to stand down in some seats in return for a government role for Farage. And Tories leading the calls, such as the radical right-wing Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan, were directly influenced by the Canada example.
UKIP treasurer Stuart Wheeler also claimed to have met with eight UK Tory MPs over “secret lunches.” In the summer of 2014, two reform-minded Conservative MPs in the British parliament defected to UKIP. More were mooted to follow.
Following the Canadian model wasn’t the only option on the table. In the months leading up to the UK general election in 2015, UKIP was still riding high in the polls and threatening the Conservatives’ right flank. Woolfe says that during this time there was a debate within UKIP about whether to turn into a bigger, broader party that might shift the centre of gravity in British politics. Some thought UKIP should court Labour voters, as it had attracted some anti-EU voters in Labour heartlands.
But the stronger feeling in the party was to pivot right, “and make UKIP into more of that Reform Party that you saw in Canada,” Woolfe says. “Farage was more of that view at that time, as were others who felt it was much more important to be able to be more conservative.” Farage had close ties among British conservatives, Woolfe says, and all of UKIP’s main donors were conservatives.
People such as UKIP’s influential lawyer at the time, Matthew Richardson, and Farage’s senior advisor, Raheem Kassam, the former Breitbart London editor with close ties to Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, were strongly behind UKIP going in the radical-right direction of Canada’s Reform Party, according to Woolfe.
The main goal now was to “unite the right” — something prominent supporters of the British Conservative Party, such as commentator Toby Young, also called for.
Admiration for the “Canada model” also had an explicit impact on UKIP’s 2015 general election manifesto, Woolfe adds. Anti-immigrant and tax cutting policies became central pillars alongside the pro-Brexit stance, as well as demands for a referendum.
Despite high hopes for the 2015 general election, UKIP only ended up holding one of its two seats and gained none, although it did win four million votes. The party came second in dozens of seats, but the first-past-the-post electoral system had kept them from storming parliament. Debate resumed over which direction to take. There were UKIP-ers who still strongly believed UKIP should become “this new Reform Party,” Woolfe recalls. “It was openly spoken about. And Farage was much more of a backer of that.” But then UKIP’s internal tensions over strategy exploded into the open. Farage resigned. He returned to lead UKIP during the EU referendum campaign in 2016, and then stepped away again after Leave won. Woolfe also left the party.
As UKIP descended into internecine warfare over the following months and years, Farage largely kept out of the fray. But he hadn’t given up on his plan for the British right — he was biding his time. In December 2018, Farage finally quit UKIP, claiming that the party had gone too far-right. Around this time, Woolfe got involved with a campaign called Blue Wave, intent on promoting traditional right-wing values within the Conservative Party, and pushing back against liberal values that he felt had come to dominate it. Also involved was Arron Banks, a past major donor to UKIP and Farage who had funded one of the most influential pro-Brexit campaign groups, Leave.EU, ahead of the referendum.
As May struggled to get her EU withdrawal agreement through parliament, Banks and his still campaiging Leave.EU went on to pursue an even more aggressive line, making a hit-list of Tories seen as Remainers that they wanted to force out of the Conservatives.
When the UK failed to leave the EU on the deadline of March 29, delaying so as not to crash out with no deal, Farage finally launched the Brexit Party. It seemed sudden, but he had been planning it for months. And while the Brexit Party is ostensibly a single-issue outfit, it is also a vehicle for achieving Farage’s ultimate goal of reshaping the British right. The party claims to be beyond right and left-wing politics, and promises to target Labour voters as well as Tories. But the Canadian influence suggests otherwise.
“There was a belief that you could now make the Brexit Party much more [like] that Reform Party,” Woolfe said, speaking more recently, pointing to the party’s recruitment of controversial social conservative and ex-Tory Ann Widdecombe as MEP, as well as Annunziata Rees-Mogg, the sister of a prominent right-wing Conservative. “It was very clear that the backing, the finances of the people involved, were much more conservative and Reform minded.”
According to Woolfe, there was talk earlier this year of Conservatives joining the Brexit Party. This never materialized. Instead Johnson has moved the Tories rightwards to try to squeeze Brexit Party support. Farage’s party has fallen in many polls to around 10 percent and lower.
While the Brexit Party may not be on the brink of surpassing the Conservatives in the national election as Canada’s Reform Party managed, Farage has been successful in remoulding the Conservatives in his own image from outside the party. Dozens of former centre-right MPs are not standing in the election. Ken Clarke, who has served as a Conservative MP since 1970 and been a cabinet minister multiple times, recently said his party of 49 years seemed to have grown indistinguishable from the Brexit Party. Clarke was one of the 21 MPs sacked by Johnson, and is standing down as an MP.
“I would say that if they did win seats, we might see actual real movement on policy and issues within the Conservative Party,” Woolfe says, referring to the upcoming vote. It remains to be seen if the Brexit Party can regain the momentum that saw it win the European elections in March. Either way, one thing is for sure — the so-called Canada model is still very much in play.