By Mark Wallace
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It is impossible to mention UKIP without Nigel Farage springing to mind, a pint in one hand and a fag in the other. He has ridden to national fame on the UKIP wave, and played a huge part in driving it forward.
By differing in every way from the main party leaders – dress, manner, style of speaking, lifestyle – he has cast himself successfully as the anti-politics politician.
As an MEP for the last 14 years, and a co-founder of his party 20 years ago, it is a surprising coup. Plenty of local Councillors are dismissed as mere members of the political class as soon as they are elected, but he has somehow slipped the label despite his last "proper job" – to use a favoured Farage turn of phrase – being in the 1990s.
It is far from his only achievement. "Some of the [UKIP] members treat him almost as a messianic figure," says one longstanding activist, sounding slightly concerned at the idea. Messiah or naughty boy, Farage has proved a regular hit on Question Time, and in the last few months it feels like he has been living in the nation's news studios. In March, Ipsos Mori found that he is the only party leader with a positive approval rating.
It is starting to feel like he might enter that select group of public figures identifiable by their first name alone – not something many would have predicted for a Nigel.
But he has been UKIP leader before, from 2006-2009, without such a media breakthrough for himself or his party. What has changed?
Events, inside and out
Obviously, the political circumstances have shifted. The Eurozone crisis has got much, much worse. Conservative woes have been much-documented, right up to the alleged insult from a "senior figure" to the party's grassroots last weekend. As I discussed on Tuesday, UKIP activists have gained heart and experience.
And yet the changes aren't all external. Farage himself has changed his approach and outlook, with important implications for dealing with his party.
Even his jokes have evolved, subtly. While he is still always ready with a one-liner for any (and every) situation, the embarrassingly over the top approach which his fellow UKIP MEPs loved – typified by his famous "charisma of a damp rag" speech about Herman van Rompuy – has disappeared, replaced by lines more appealing to the electorate and media back home. He's never going to be the most PC person in the world – but he shoots more to amuse than insult nowadays.
It is in his media profile that the biggest shift can be seen.
For a long time, he was the only public face and voice of his party – even before his first stint as leader. He's an entertaining media performer, but his predominance suggested the party was at heart the Nigel Farage Show.
His enemies say that was because he felt threatened by other emerging talent and tried to snuff it out; his friends and fans say it is because his commitment to his cause meant he was never willing to turn down an opportunity to advance it through the media. The truth may be that it was down to a mix of both of those reasons.
That phase is now behind him. For the first time in UKIP's history, Farage is actively putting forward a range of his colleagues for presentation to the public. Paul Nuttall MEP, the party's Deputy Leader; Steven Woolfe, their City Spokesman; and Diane James, their extremely capable Eastleigh candidate, have all been doing the rounds on Question Time, the Daily Politics and elsewhere.
The prospect of UKIP developing a slate of viable, effective spokespeople rather than simply relying on their leader would have been unthinkable three or four years ago. Doing so makes them more successful as a party, appealing to different demographics and covering more ground as a team. It also hints at the first recognition that even Nigel Farage may not be relied on to live forever – new talent is the future of any party.
That said, if you were putting money on any party leader to prove immortal, Farage would be your best bet. He is no stranger to near-death experiences, from a car crash and testicular cancer in his youth to the famous plane crash on General Election Day in 2010.
Interestingly, it is these traumatic experiences which have done most to forge his political identity. He has long attributed his lifestyle libertarianism on drinking and smoking to a decision, made in his 20s, that having survived cancer and a run-in with a motor vehicle he may as well live life to the full.
Spared for the third time
It should be no surprise, then, that his most recent transformation – and the attendant upturn of UKIP's electoral fortunes – comes swiftly after he almost died in the Buckingham plane crash. It was a very serious accident – they reportedly had several minutes to powerlessly contemplate their fate before actually hitting the ground, and he has vividly recounted the terror of realising he was covered in fuel in the wreckage:
"We were trapped inside it and there was petrol everywhere. I thought 'God, we've survived the impact and now we're going to burn to death'."
It's possible to imagine any number of major life decisions springing from such an experience.
It could have made him choose to jack in all the campaigning, sit back and enjoy life (something I gather he has mulled a few times over the years). For Nigel Farage it did the opposite: he decided that if he was going to keep fighting the UKIP fight then he would do it to win or not at all.
He's been true to his word on that front, swiftly returning to the leadership he had given up not so long before. Much of the seemingly inexhaustible energy (despite his injuries), the newfound willingness to allow spokespeople other than himself on screen, and particularly the merciless hammering of David Cameron at every turn, comes directly from the events of election day 2010.
It is impossible to appreciate the Nigel Farage who is surging in the polls today without understanding how different he is from the Nigel Farage who crashed to earth three years ago. For the third time, he feels, his life has been spared: and he intends to make it count.