Nigel Farage illustrates in an extreme way the paradoxes of Brexit. He is determined to bring power back from Brussels to Westminster, yet denounces the politicians and institutions who would wield that power:
“Do you believe that this political class, that these two parties, that Parliament now need to be swept aside and replaced by better people?”
That was Farage speaking on Wednesday in a hard, angry tone at the rally held by his new Brexit Party in Clacton. Here is a career politician – an MEP since 1999 – who denounces career politicians.
And a conservative who poses a mortal threat to the Conservative Party. He joined the party in 1978, the day after hearing Sir Keith Joseph speak at his school, Dulwich College, but left it in protest at the Maastricht Treaty and joined what became UKIP.
Under Farage’s leadership, UKIP did so well it forced David Cameron, in his Bloomberg Speech in January 2013, to promise a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
When I interviewed Farage for ConHome in July 2013, I asked him: “Are you trying to destroy the Conservative Party?”
He replied: “No, I don’t need to. Cameron’s doing that for me.”
If asked the same question today, he would most likely say he doesn’t need to because Theresa May is doing it for him.
But that is an evasion, a way of placing the responsibility for what he is doing elsewhere. And it does not answer the question of whether he actually wants to destroy the Conservative Party.
While writing this article, it occurred to me that he wants to destroy the party unless he himself can lead it, or at least the large part of it which reveres Enoch Powell and believes in national sovereignty.
Farage has little time for the tactful accommodations which have helped the Conservative Party to survive for so long without splitting. He is an all-or-nothing kind of a person, who chafes and frets and feels an overwhelming urge to walk out unless he himself is in charge. His abounding energy has to find an outlet or he would probably feel he was going round the bend.
He was born in 1964 and brought up at Downe, a village on the North Downs on the Kent side of London. When he was five his mother and father, a stockbroker who drank too much and seemed wonderfully glamorous to his son, got divorced. She soon got remarried to a local businessman.
Nigel was interested in, and good at, cricket, golf, fishing, politics, and the energetic, risk-taking, convivial, monied life of a City trader. He went straight from school to a job on the London Metal Exchange, offered to him by a man he met on the golf course.
In his early 20s, on his way home from work after a number of drinks. he was hit by a car as he crossed the road outside Orpington Station. He took about a year to recover, after which he was struck down by testicular cancer, from which he also recovered.
His first marriage was to the nurse who helped see him through this. They had two children. From a second marriage, to a German, he had two more children.
In 2017 Farage described himself, while laughing uproariously through an interview with Rachel Johnson, as “53, separated, skint”, which he blamed on the 20 years he had spent campaigning for UKIP, for which he gave up his City career.
Within UKIP he fought some bitter battles with rivals, as Mark Wallace has charted for this site: “The old joke in UKIP circles is that there is one rule of the party’s perennial bouts of in-fighting: Nigel always wins.”
A more favourable interpretation of Farage’s behaviour was offered earlier this week by a senior UKIP figure who worked closely with him and still admires him: “Nigel’s sense of timing is always brilliant.”
This individual suggested that Farage made sure he was in charge of UKIP when it was about to do well, and handed the leadership over to some poor sap – Lord Pearson of Rannoch, Paul Nuttall – when it was heading for defeat.
The source expressed admiration for the brilliant timing shown by Farage in setting up the Brexit Party: “He’s got better – he’s learned – he’s got a new brand, without the baggage.”
Gerard Batten, leader of what remains of UKIP, had rendered it toxic by bringing in Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, better known as Tommy Robinson, as an adviser.
That gave Farage his exit line. He announced in December that he was leaving UKIP because of Batten’s “obsession” with Yaxley-Lennon and “fixation” with the issue of Islam, which had rendered the party “unrecognisable”.
There was just the right amount of time to plan, by 29th March, the launch of the Brexit Party. It is not in fact possible to join this party: all one can do is become a supporter.
Farage is back, and this time he has been able to keep things blissfully simple. He is in charge, a “dictator” as the admirer quoted above puts it, and there is not even time to draw up a manifesto before the European elections.
He is instead doing what he does best: giving millions of disregarded voters the chance to give the established political parties an almighty kick, in elections which are otherwise considered totally unimportant.
The Prime Minister does not appear to have seen this problem coming. According to Nigel Evans, joint executive secretary of the 1922 Committee,
“I spoke to the Prime Minister just a few months ago and I said ‘whatever you do on these Brexit negotiations, you must not breathe new life into Nigel Farage.’
“And she looked at me rather oddly and said that she was more concerned about the Liberal Democrats.”
The assumption in Downing Street was that angry leave-voting Conservatives would have nowhere else to go, and that in any case, it should be possible to avoid holding the European elections, as the Withdrawal Agreement would by then have passed through Parliament.
The second part of this might yet happen, but at present looks unlikely. Farage seems to have foreseen better than May how the cards were going to fall, and to have placed himself in the position of the plucky insurgent who takes on the remote, unfeeling powers that be.
Compared to the inexperienced Change UK, which finds itself in competition with other small, pro-European parties and whose name fails to indicate that it stands for Remain, the launch of the Brexit Party was impressively professional.
Farage has brought with him people who know how to do the social media, including the short videos, which are required in order to look as if you know what you are doing.
He recruited some candidates, including Ann Widdecombe, Annunziata Rees-Mogg and Claire Fox, who cannot be dismissed as mere cranks, and who, whatever their incompatibilities might prove to be over the longer term, are for the time being united in wanting to achieve Brexit.
This site carried out a poll which suggested that three out of five Conservative Party members will vote for the Brexit Party – a result which indicates that under May’s leadership, the Tories could be heading for humiliation on 23rd May.
And Farage is fortified by the contempt of a considerable part of the metropolitan media, well conveyed by John Crace, The Guardian‘s sketchwriter, who wrote of him after this week’s launch: “Nige has only ever been about the glorification of Nige. The narcissist’s narcissist.”
That is a tenable view. Farage revels in the attention he so restlessly and successfully seeks. But it leaves out the policy, Brexit, for which he is campaigning. And as with the attacks by The New York Times and The Washington Post on Donald Trump, that sort of criticism, if noticed at all by Farage’s supporters, tends to confirm them in the view that he is a fitting champion for their disregarded opinions, because he is upsetting the liberals.
When ConHome asked Jacob Rees-Mogg what he thinks of Farage’s new party, he replied: “It shouldn’t have been necessary, had Theresa May done what she said she was going to do.”
Rees-Mogg said “the one good thing about it” is that it excludes Tommy Robinson, who “is well beyond the pale of normal British politics.”
He added that on 23rd May “the Tories will do badly in a completely irrelevant election”, but as long as the party can deliver Brexit, there is no reason why it should not do well when the general election comes.
So “Nigel Farage will have done something that’s politically important” if he forces the delivery of Brexit. If, on the other hand, “we just ignore it, Jeremy Corbyn starts winning elections.”
When asked about his sister, Annunziata, a former Conservative parliamentary candidate who is now standing for the Brexit Party, he said:
“I’m glad she’s not standing where I live. I would always vote for the Conservative candidate, but I wouldn’t want to vote against a member of my family. She’s standing in the East Midlands and Lincolnshire. If she had been standing in the South-West, I would have voted in London. If she had been standing in London, I would have voted in the South-West.”
As indicated at the start of this piece, Farage is not just about Brexit. He also wants radical change. Having stood without success for the Commons seven times, he is a long-standing supporter of proportional representation, and has described the first-past-the-post system as “bankrupt”.
When he talks of breaking the two-party system, he means it. In this respect, he is closer to the Liberal Democrats and Greens than either the Conservatives or Labour. In recent days he has said he will be setting out to win over the five million Labour voters who supported Leave in 2016.
But the threat he poses to the Conservative Party is greater. In 2005 I suggested that UKIP were “the lost Tory tribe without whom the Conservatives will find it hard to become again the natural party of government.”
Something similar may prove to be true of the Brexit Party. Farage is in some ways a quintessentially Tory figure, the voice of the irascible man in the saloon bar who cannot understand how the politicians at Westminster have made such a mess of something which ought to be so straightforward.
One wonders whether he feels a kind of disappointed love for the Tories, or for the Tories as they ought to be, dressed like Farage in an ebulliently traditional manner, enjoying themselves over tremendous City lunches, untouched by political correctness.
Like many hail-fellow-well-met types, his compulsive bonhomie conceals an acute sensitivity to slights.
In his autobiography, Fighting Bull, he provides evidence of deep feeling, but also of ruthlessness, as when he writes, after recounting one of UKIP’s vicious internal battles in which he ended up on the winning side:
“The lesson of history…seems to be that every political party needs a purge, just as many a habitat needs the cleansing but doubtless painful effects of fire.”
One cannot imagine the Brexit Party will be around for very long. It is most likely to rise like a rocket and fall like a stick. But just now, Farage is in the ascendant, for he offers voters the chance to express their fury with the Government for breaking its Brexit promises.