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Tory insiders fear Farage takeover after election wipeout

With Rishi Sunak’s election campaign failing to make any obvious inroads into the Labour lead in the polls, attention among senior Tories is turning to what will happen after the seemingly inevitable defeat – and the rising threat of Nigel Farage.

Regular polls that had pointed to a devastating defeat for the Conservatives worsened last week after Mr Farage chose to stand for election in Clacton.

Having assumed the role as leader of the hard-right party Reform UK, the veteran Eurosceptic immediately announced he had eyes on even bigger prize than being elected to Parliament – control of the Tory party.

While it may seem premature for a man who has previously failed seven times to get elected to be talking about his prospects after polling day, his designs to stage a reverse takeover of the Conservatives have not gone unnoticed by Tory high command.

A senior Tory told i that Farage’s ambitions “have not been dismissed” by party bigwigs but the focus is so much on the election campaign that “people haven’t had time to think through tactics”.

“Much depends on whether he is an MP next month and who are our MPs. The unknown is how our party members and activists might respond to a ‘takeover’,” the source said.

In comments that are likely to strike fear into many a Tory, the source added: “There may be a mass exodus/non renewals of membership, so the numbers to resist just aren’t there. So many ex councillors are already totally fed up.”

In other words, a shattered Conservative Party post-election may be ripe for a Faragian revolution.

The former Brexit Party leader has made no bones about his desire to see the Conservatives “destroyed” and for him to pick up the pieces to shape the remnants of whatever is left in his own image.

Perhaps most concerning for moderate Tories is that a blueprint already exists for a coup.

In an interview last week, Farage highlighted former Canadian prime minister Steve Harper’s successful campaign to take control of the Canadian Conservatives after the party’s annihilation in the 1993 elections.

The party went from holding 156 seats to just two, preparing the ground for the right wing Harper to seize control of the levers of power.

Speaking to ITV, Mr Farage said: “Reform did a reverse takeover of the Conservative Party, rebranded it and Stephen Harper – who was elected as a Reform MP – became the Canadian prime minister for 10 years.”

He added: “I don’t want to join the Conservative Party. I think the better thing to do would be to take it over.”

Much will depend on the makeup of the parliamentary party after the election, but moderates will be concerned that the likes of Liz Truss has been taking an active role in trying to dictate who will be the party’s next leader.

The short-lived prime minister has openly courted Mr Farage, sharing stages with the right winger at the Conservative Party conference and appealing to his political instincts with her new brand of Popular Conservatism.

Others eager to extend an invitation to join the Tory party are the likes of former Cabinet minister Simon Clarke and Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Truss has also been seen to be working closely with Priti Patel, with the pair hosting meetings with MPs before the general election that sparked speculation the former home secretary was preparing the ground for a leadership bid once Mr Sunak steps down in the event of a defeat.

Ms Patel has been mainly sticking to campaigning in her own constituency, but she has raised eyebrows within Tory circles by bringing her political clout to several marginal seats in what is being seen as a move to garner support among prospective MPs.

The former Cabinet minister’s social media feeds show zero public backing for Mr Sunak’s national campaign, but she has chosen to appear in tight marginals such as Iain Duncan Smith’s Chingford and Woodford Green.

Her eagerness to help candidates in certain constituencies has not gone unnoticed, with one telling i: “I had a very interesting call with Priti Patel. If you’d been recording the call there was nothing obviously improper about it but it was made clear that she was agitating for future support.”

Another leadership candidate choosing to keep their heads down is Robert Jenrick. The former immigration minister was among the most vocal in his criticism of the Government’s approach to bringing down legal migration and stopping the small boat Channel crossings.

But he has failed to endorse the party’s messaging in his Twitter feeds, choosing instead to attack Labour on its immigration plans. In the immediate aftermath of the election being called, Mr Jenrick became a member of the young Conservative caucus Next Gen Tories, which advocates for increasing housebuilding and lowering childcare costs.

Sources close to the former minister said he “no plans to do national media”, choosing instead to “focus hard on getting re-elected”.

Even Cabinet ministers are only willing to go out to bat for the party on the national airwaves when a party announcement falls squarely on their brief.

Kemi Badenoch, among those most heavily tipped to win the leadership after the election and widely viewed as one of the party’s strongest performers, has appeared in the election just once, to champion the Tories’ policy on gender guidance.

But insiders have admitted: “It’s no secret she doesn’t love media so you’ll see the likes of [Mel] Stride, [Claire] Coutinho, [Laura] Trott and [James] Cleverly more because they are happy going out on issues that aren’t their policy areas.”

Yet with other potential leadership contenders facing a serious battle to keep hold of their seats, such as Defence Secretary Grant Shapps and Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt, it is likely to fall on Ms Badenoch’s shoulders to see off a potential threat from Farage and his Tory supporters in the aftermath of the election.

If Mr Sunak leads his troops into a historic defeat come 4 July, then it is likely to set the scene for an almighty battle for the soul of the Tory party.

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