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The Farage effect: why Nigel has tanked I’m a Celeb’s ratings

Those on X might have seen #BoycottImACeleb trending over the last week, as tens of thousands of angry viewers pledged not to watch ITV's flagship show over the platforming of populist politician Nigel Farage. 

Many did so in direct response to Best for Britain's boycott campaign, launched last week, which also encouraged more than 5,000 people to go a step further and send a complaint to Ant & Dec personally.

To our delight (and only slight amazement), it seems to have paid off. In a phenomenon that has been ominously labelled 'The Farage Effect', the show saw opening-night viewing figures dive to lows not seen since the series began in 2002, with 2.2 million fewer people watching than last year. Just to rub a bit of salt in the wound, there were also 8 million fewer people in the UK back then!

'The show saw opening-night viewing figures dive to lows not seen since the series began in 2002'

While we can't, and won't, take all the credit for this drop-off, we did play a part - I mean we're good, but we're not 2.2 million good.

But then there was the secondary drop off that came on Monday night with viewing figures declining again, this time by almost a further 1 million people. 

This first drop, might be what is being reported; that principled fans of the show, who love their country more than they love watching famous people eat bugs, recognised that giving Farage yet another platform to spout his malign and harmful views is a bad idea, and in their millions switched over to Masterchef. But what explains that second drop? Is it the natural slope down from the season premiere or is something else at work? 

Before going into the jungle, Farage claimed he wanted the opportunity to show people he’s not a “nasty”, “little Englander”. That he wants people to get to see who he was behind the politics. But is it the case that people took one look at the ‘real’ Nigel and decided they don’t much like him either. That despite his desperate attempt to rehabilitate what you might call his ‘man in the pub’ persona, people understand the damage he has done to this country and aren’t quite so ready to forgive him for it? Is Farage’s penance in the jungle as unconvincing as it is futile? 

'Is Farage's penance in the jungle as unconvincing as it is futile?'

To investigate I was given special dispensation to watch one episode, and one episode only. Don’t say we don’t suffer for our beliefs.

And it turns out the ‘nice Nigel’ rebrand is failing pretty miserably. Whether it's his huffing and puffing as he strops around camp, moaning about dirty plates, or his ghoulish delight at the opportunity to decapitate five small birds for the camp’s dinner, from what I've seen he’s far from likeable. 

But perhaps inevitably what got me the most, was his declaration that he didn’t regret anything he’s said about Europe or borders. Nope, “not at all”, not even all the lies. 

As families up and down the country continue to struggle due to the damaging effects of our inglorious exit from the EU - which has added £250 to the average annual food bill and which was largely engineered by Farage himself - his comment felt pretty shameful. And I think many viewers will have felt the same way.

So, if Farage is struggling to present himself in a favourable fashion, why am I, and the rest of the team at Best for Britain, still arguing against his participation in the show?

While viewing figures have dropped substantially, there are still millions who have, and will continue, to watch the show. And that means millions being exposed, on a nightly basis, to Nigel Farage's toxic views.  

'Millions exposed, on a nightly basis, to Nigel Farage's toxic views' 

And while some of the other contestants are willing to speak up, let’s be honest, Fred from First Dates is hardly Paxman and Farage knows every trick in the book to distract and digress from any valid criticism of his odious record. No campmate can provide an effective counter to Farage’s divisive politics and inflammatory rhetoric. And why should they? Contestants don’t go on I'm a Celebrity to be politically challenged and I would bet that’s not why most people tune in either. 

None of this would matter if Farage’s political career was behind him, as Hancock's was when he went on the show in 2022, but we all know that not to be the case.

The show is the perfect vehicle for Farage to normalise his views, and therefore his politics, with one eye on the upcoming general election, now almost certain to be sooner rather than later. And his ability to, once more, play an influential role in our broken electoral system shouldn't be underestimated. 

Despite officially handing over leadership of Reform UK to Richard Tice in March 2021, Farage remains the sole “person of significant control”, as stated on the party's Limited records at Companies House. He has just to tell Tice to jump, and the response will be “how high?”. And with Reform UK currently at 10 per cent in the polls, neck-and-neck with the Lib-Dems, this matters.

If Farage decides to stand Reform candidates down at the upcoming general election, as he did with the Brexit Party in 2019 and UKIP in 2017, then suddenly Labour's lead doesn't seem quite so solid. Indeed, year after year Best for Britain's modelling of the polls consistently shows that when the right form a regressive alliance and the progressive parties don't respond in kind, the left is in trouble. 

'Best for Britain's modelling of the polls consistently shows that when the right form a regressive alliance and the progressive parties don't respond in kind, the left is in trouble'

The recent by-elections in Mid-Bedfordshire and Tamworth are a perfect example of the way in which Reform can upset results. In both seats, the Conservative Party would have won a majority had Reform UK stood aside and their votes gone to the Tories. 

And with Farage's sights potentially set on a return to the Tory fold, there's every reason for him to enter into an alliance, and in doing so lay the groundwork for a hero's return, post-election, to CCHQ; maybe this time headed up by Suella Braverman. And you thought eating bugs was bad.

This might all seem a little far-fetched, but we've seen it happen before. Between 2010 and 2017, Farage's anti-EU UKIP party appeared on almost 1 in 4 of the BBC’s Question Time programmes, despite never having more than two MPs. There is no doubt that this platform contributed to the normalising of his extreme views and therefore the outcome of the Brexit vote and the way it was handled. 

So if you find yourself watching I'm a Celeb, be aware that this isn't just a bit of fun for Farage, this is part of a carefully constructed plan, and one with the potential for widespread damage. Because if you think Brexit was bad, what could Farage have planned that merits this desperate stab at public rehabilitation?