Reform U.K.’s Success Is Latest Sign of Strength for Europe’s Far Right

Keir Starmer and the Labour Party may have won Britain’s general election, but another politician was also looking happy on Friday.

Nigel Farage, Britain’s veteran political disrupter and Brexit campaigner, saw his new anti-immigration Reform U.K. party secure five seats in Parliament and it could have been more. Reform won more than four million votes nationwide — around 14 percent — making it Britain’s third most successful party by that measure.

It was the latest successful result in Europe by populist, right-wing parties, and it instantly drew comparisons to the National Rally, which is seeking to become France’s biggest party in that country’s parliament in a final round of voting on Sunday. In his campaign, Mr. Farage said immigration had “diminished” the quality of life in Britain and that “the time has come to stand up and say ‘enough is enough.’” He has called for a “freeze” on nonessential immigration, blaming it for putting pressure on health services and housing.

Britain’s electoral system of first-past-the-post tends to work against smaller parties, meaning that Reform collected far fewer seats in the 650-member House of Commons than its vote share might have indicated. Still, Mr. Farage sounded triumphant on Friday.

“There is a massive gap on the center right of British politics, and my job is to fill it,” he told jubilant supporters after it was announced that he had won a parliamentary seat in Clacton, an economically distressed seaside region, by a big margin. It was his first successful run after seven failed races for Parliament.

He said his party would also “now be targeting Labour votes,” building on its second-place finish in the popular vote to become the dominant center-left party in several seats in northern England.

But the Conservatives may be most worried for now by Reform’s sudden rise. For years, Mr. Farage has tormented them, pushing the party to the right. Pressure from the U.K. Independence Party, which he once led, prompted the Tories to offer the Brexit referendum in 2016 that led to Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Ahead of the general election, Mr. Farage suggested he could mount a takeover of the Conservatives if they suffered a cataclysmic defeat. A meltdown on that scale was averted. But with his three fellow lawmakers, Mr. Farage now has a bridgehead in Parliament, resources to build up his fledgling party and a platform from which to harass the Conservatives — as well as target voters in some traditionally Labour areas.

Success could bring greater scrutiny. During the election campaign, Mr. Farage endured a wave of criticism after Channel 4 News aired an exposé in which an undercover investigator secretly filmed Reform campaigners in Clacton making racist and homophobic statements, including using a racial slur to describe the incumbent prime minister, Rishi Sunak.

Mr. Farage is no stranger to controversy. A strong supporter of Donald J. Trump — he had initially said he wouldn’t run for Parliament so he could campaign for Mr. Trump in the United States — he has also argued that the West had provoked Russia into invading Ukraine.

His love of the limelight and his reluctance to delegate could hamper his ability to build his new party into the force he claims it will become. But he has nevertheless been able to force his way back onto the political stage.

With Mr. Sunak saying on Friday that he would step down as party leader, the Conservatives must decide on a new leadership and direction, and whether to build back by appealing to centrist voters or those on the hard right.

In the general election, the Tories lost dozens of seats to the centrist Liberal Democrats, so some moderates see that as a reason for their party to tack to the center. But others are worried that Mr. Farage’s noisy but often effective voice will push the party farther to the right.

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