Patrick O’Flynn’s claim that Nigel Farage is thin-skinned seems to have provoked a non-thick-skinned response from the UKIP leader – since it is unlikely that the former’s apology came of his own volition. O’Flynn also said that Farage is aggressive. One doesn’t force a colleague publicly to eat humble pie, and sack him as an economics spokesman, without having a measure of aggression. So two of O’Flynn’s charges were undoubtedly correct.
His third – that the UKIP leader is “snarling” – is admittedly a bit simplistic. Farage can be good company and is very funny. But he certainly brooks no challenge to his authority, as Suzanne Evans’s defenestration also reminds us: like O’Flynn, she is currently on a train to Siberia, as today’s Daily Telegraph reports. “Nigel always wins,” they say over at the Purple Party. This seems to be true. But it also seems to be true that he never wins, either – at least in Westminster elections, in which voters in both Thanet and Buckingham have not returned him.
The point has a wider application. With intense drive, boundless energy, no little cunning, a fabulously intuitive political sense and a neglect of consistency that borders on contempt, Farage has built UKIP up from a tiny groupuscule into a continental-style protest party, complete with a respectable local government base, excellent European election results, and over ten per cent of the vote on May 7. That he battles with illness and has cheated death twice makes the achievement even more remarkable. And all done without the slightest concession to teetotalism.
But if Farage is his party’s necessity he is also its curse, as Gladstone said of Disraeli. Like those 1980s-type Conservative MPs to which his sartorial style is a throwback, he is all marmite. You love him or you hate him. Over ten per cent of the electorate seems to love him, or at least like him, and not to care at all about UKIP’s jaw-dropping series of purges, scandals, vendettas, expulsions, colourful members, bad ideas and shameless self-contradictions. To them, Farage is two fingers stuck up to the establishment who’ve made Britain’s present worse than its past, and they stick with him.
UKIP has a strategic choice, which is recognised by almost all except what Mark Wallace calls its People’s Army faction: it can go after either the Conservatives or Labour, but not both at once. The latter’s weakness provides the party with an opportunity. As Matthew Goodwin, one of the co-authors of the standard work on the Party, put it recently: “we have real evidence of UKIP’s ability to win significant support in a large swathe of Labour-held territory in northern England and Wales”. The long road to Westminster lies through Labour’s rotten boroughs.
But the man who must march his troops through them looks like, sounds like, dresses like and smells like (so to speak) a Tory. This for a good reason: when push comes to shove, he is one. Farage was a Conservative but left the Party over Maastricht. With his Dulwich education, golf and metal trading, the UKIP leader is a proof of the old truth that if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s almost certainly a duck. He embodies a UKIP problem. A goodish slice of the Party’s activists are ex-Tories. However, few seem to be former Labour members who speak Labour language.
UKIP isn’t finished. It has about 400 councillors. It will always flourish in European elections. It isn’t going back down to the three per cent it won at the 2010 General Election any time soon. But it is not well placed to break through in those Labour seats in 2020. And in the meantime, it is messing up the Out campaign: support for quitting the EU has fallen as UKIP’s ratings have risen. To too many voters, Farage looks like a tweedy disproof of Eurosceptic claims that our cause is internationalist, optimistic about Britain, and progressive.
UKIP’s future looks like one of electoral survival, endangering the referendum result and leaking key members to the Conservatives. Meanwhile, there is one man whose cheerful presence questions the claim that Nigel never loses. Douglas Carswell is back at Westminster. He’s all on his own and there’s little that Farage can do about him. And, talking of the Tories, Carswell’s recent writings remind me of that old Four Seasons classic: “I’m working my way back to you, babe, with a burning love inside…“