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Known for his role in Brexit, Nigel Farage is gaining prominence in the U.K. elections

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Britain goes to the polls in just a few weeks, and a high-profile politician is shaking up the race, Nigel Farage. He's running as the leader of a new third party and poses a major challenge for Rishi Sunak's governing Conservative Party. Reporter Willem Marx joins us now from London. Good morning, Willem.

WILLEM MARX, BYLINE: Good morning.

KURTZLEBEN: So give us a little breakdown of where things stand in this election right now.

MARX: Well, it was no secret that the Conservative Party under Rishi Sunak was quite a long way behind their Labour opponents in national polls. Their leader, Keir Starmer, was doing quite well in holding that party together. Sunak had to call an election at some point between now and January. He seems to have decided this was as good a time as any to face off with Labour. His party's been in power 14 years. He's hoping to close that large polling gap during the campaign.

But then Nigel Farage suddenly announced he'd also run for a seat in Parliament. He'd do so as the leader of this relatively new Reform Party. And he's, in large part, seeking to attract traditional conservative voters who might be disillusioned with their traditional party's track record in government the last few years.

KURTZLEBEN: Tell us a bit more about Nigel Farage's campaign specifically. Of course, he's famous for his role in Brexit, his support for former President Donald Trump. What else should people know about him?

MARX: Well, you know, he's been part of the British political landscape for many years but, until Brexit, was very much on the fringe. He served as a legislator in the European Parliament, but that's after failing on multiple occasions to get elected with a seat in the British Parliament. He became this massive booster for Brexit and ended up claiming personal responsibility for the decision of voters to exit the European Union back in 2016 during that referendum.

And then he kind of faded from the scene a little bit. He spent a lot of time in the U.S. as a public cheerleader for Trump. He seems to have seen this latest election, though, as an opportunity for a comeback. And his decision to lead Reform in this election really concerned a lot of Conservative Party incumbents and candidates because Reform's now running really against them all over the country on a platform that's critical of current immigration policy - frankly, a little vague though on details like taxation, health care and economic reforms.

KURTZLEBEN: On that note, what is his pitch to voters?

MARX: Well, he says that after so long in power, the Conservative Party has become too fragmented to survive in its current form. In a recent interview on BBC Radio, he was asked about the fact that the Conservatives have traditionally been kind of a big tent party. But he said that is now changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIGEL FARAGE: I think that the center right of British politics needs to be completely reshaped. It won't be reshaped by the Conservative Party on their own. It will only be reshaped if Reform get many, many, many millions of votes in this election and representation in Parliament. And we can then show that we're the opposition to Starmer.

KURTZLEBEN: Now, do the polls actually back that up? Is it possible that Reform is the new party of opposition to Labour and its leader, Keir Starmer?

MARX: Well, we've got these really short election campaigns here. They're only six weeks long. We're already halfway through this one. Campaigning began when Farage wasn't even a candidate, but several recent polls have shown his Reform Party's really been gaining on the Conservatives, with Labour still a long way ahead.

One poll out just a couple of days ago, commissioned by the London Times newspaper, carried out by a very respected polling company, YouGov, showed Labour on 37%, Reform up several points to 19% and the Conservatives unchanged on 18%.

KURTZLEBEN: Wow.

MARX: It was within the margin for error, YouGov said, but it still indicated that in national polls, Reform and the Conservatives were, quote, "neck and neck." And of course, under U.K. electoral system, known as First Past the Post, that doesn't automatically translate into the same number of parliamentary seats. The math is often a lot more complicated. But it really does represent a huge threat to Rishi Sunak's ability to, I guess, stave off electoral defeat next month.

KURTZLEBEN: Reporter Willem Marx in London, thank you so much.

MARX: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.