Overrated: Nigel Farage
The seven-times-failed candidate presents himself to the world as Mr Brexit but his party, UKIP, is now fading fast
Nigel Farage must be Britain’s best- known seven-times-failed Westminster parliamentary candidate. In the United States he presents himself as Mr Brexit; in the UK he is portrayed as the one British politician who championed Trump before his victory. Neither claim is in fact true. Farage was not a public face of the officially-designated Vote Leave campaign and they did their very best to keep him off the airwaves as much as they could during the campaign. In the run-up to the 2016 US presidential election Farage explicitly did not endorse Trump — he would only go so far as to say that he would certainly not vote for Hillary Clinton. Farage’s endorsement came after Trump’s victory.
By the time the UK leaves the EU next year Farage will, thanks only to proportional representation, have been a Member of the European Parliament for 20 years. UKIP’s later rise was predicated upon the platform and indeed money the European Parliament provided. This was the essential launchpad for the party’s later takeoff.
What has Farage achieved from his European platform? He has made pugnacious speeches which have had millions of views on YouTube. By the standards of today’s politicians he is a great communicator — outclassed on the Right perhaps only by Boris Johnson and in his own idiosyncratic way Jacob Rees-Mogg — but Farage’s appeal is limited to certain sections of the electorate, as his failure to win a first-past-the-post election demonstrates.
Fear of Farage and the rise of UKIP undoubtedly contributed to David Cameron’s decision to switch to supporting an In/Out EU membership referendum in his Bloom-berg speech in January 2013. But the then Prime Minister was also responding to rising Tory Euroscepticism and the biggest rebellion over Europe any Conservative leader had ever faced, when in October 2011 81 MPs voted in defiance of the whip in support of an In/Out referendum. Cameron had spectacularly miscalculated. In Farage’s words, “The irony was that far from shoot the UKIP fox, all the Bloomberg speech did was feed it.”
Farage also has another achievement to his name, such as it is. As he said in 2016, “I’ve spent ten years trying to make immigration and EU membership synonymous.” When Farage was first elected in 1999 there had been no mention of immigration in UKIP’s election literature. By the 2014 European elections, in which UKIP got the largest share of the vote, immigration was the party’s defining issue. What had changed was the Blair government’s decision in 2004 not to impose any work restrictions on citizens from the Central and Eastern European countries joining the EU that year. This led to an unprecedented level of migration to the UK and moved an issue which had been only raised by a fringe to an everyday concern of millions. Farage knew how to capitalise upon it and this helped to make a Leave vote possible.
By making immigration an issue Farage managed to boost UKIP to 15 per cent and higher in general election polling — but his way of talking about immigration also put many more people off. Polls were beginning to demonstrate the so-called Farage Paradox: as UKIP went up in the polls the percentage of voters supporting leaving the EU fell. Many voters clearly thought, “If Farage and his populism represent leaving the EU, then I am against it.” Farage’s many enemies in the Eurosceptic movement make too much of his toxicity, but it is hard to imagine a Farage-led Leave campaign winning a majority.
Farage’s greatest weakness has been his total failure to turn UKIP into a proper party with staying power — without his charisma UKIP is a shell. Farage was leader of UKIP on four occasions between 2006 and 2016 and on each occasion he simply failed to build up other figures in the party — when they did seem to have promise he did his best to undermine them. Former Labour MP and TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, Suzanne Evans, and disgraced former Tory MP Neil Hamilton have all had this treatment.
The Eurosceptic Right of the Conservative Party had been in rebellion for all the time UKIP was a force; a better, more emollient tactician than Farage would surely have brought more of them over. It was the fear of being sidelined in the new party which stopped many from jumping ship — and this was entirely Farage’s fault. UKIP’s highest-profile defector — the then Clacton MP Douglas Carswell — now all but publicly gloats that his defection was a genius wheeze to detoxify UKIP and undermine Farage. There may be a fair bit of post-hoc justification in the claim, but it shows how Farage failed to build a party. Farage’s failures in leadership explains why — with a few honourable exceptions such as London Assembly member and former Standpoint contributor Peter Whittle — UKIP without Farage is a party of political pygmies which will soon fade into nothingness, after six leaders in 16 months, the latest being the hapless Farage-backed Henry Bolton. If Farage had had better leadership qualities, things could now be very much rosier for the party.