Otto English on what his investigation into Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has revealed about the ‘sticking it to the elites’ populism it claims to be based on.
It was the night of 14 January 1978 and the Sex Pistols’ acrimonious US tour was drawing to a weary end. Britain’s premium punk export had failed to live up to the hype and, as the band concluded a halfhearted encore at the Winterland, San Francisco, a sneering Johnny Rotten, weary of it all, turned on the audience and jeered contemptuously: “Ha, ha, ha – ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
Contrary to a popular Photoshopped meme, man of the Paypal Nigel Farage was never a punk. In 1978, he was a posh teenage boy at the exclusive Dulwich College – where fees are currently £40,000 a year – failing his way through exams and upsetting teachers by allegedly singing Hitler Youth songs.
But, perhaps something of the punk ethos filtered through to young Nigel, because he’s been living off that Johnny Rotten mantra for years. Take his latest project – the Great Brexit Party Swindle.
In February, Farage along with eight fellow UKIP MEPs, defected to Brexit Party Ltd, which had been registered with Companies House in November 2018. In its first few months, the party had already received £1 million in pledges and had 200 individuals willing to stand in the European Elections.
In March, Farage was crowned king, displacing the party’s founder Catherine Blaiklock and her unfortunate anti-Islamic tweets.
A website was then set up for the Brexit Party, inviting people to donate £25 and become “registered supporters”. By the end of April, a spokesperson was boasting that 100,000 people had logged on and paid their £25 – that’s £2.5 million, in case you don’t have a calculator to hand, and an awful lot of money and data for a couple of round robin emails a month. The link remains live and presumably many more have paid up since.
If the fancy took them, Brexit Party supporters could donate up to £500 – an amount conveniently below that which has to be declared to the elections watchdog, the Electoral Commission. However, no one could actually join the party. Membership was limited to Farage, Richard Tice and a handful of their mates.
When challenged on this peculiar model, a Brexit Party representative told the Electoral Commission that the lack of membership was deliberate in order to prevent “members of the BNP” and confusingly “the EDF” from joining the party. Quite why customers of a French energy firm should be barred from joining the Brexit movement will have to be left to the history books, but the excuse rang hollow.
In his years at UKIP, Farage had come to loathe the inconvenience of the party faithful. Members can be awkward people. He was far happier to be the unaccountable, self-appointed head of his party – even as he railed against unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. And it didn’t seem to bother the fans because the money and support kept flooding in.
In addition to all of those undeclared online payments, between April and June 2019, the party recorded additional private donations of £1,049,000.
As I and others raised concerns about Farage being a man of the Paypal, the Electoral Commission found that the “the fundraising structure adopted by the party leaves it open to high and ongoing risk of receiving and accepting impermissible donations”. But, Farage faced little censure and carried on regardless.
Having stormed the European Elections with a team that included former Revolutionary Communist Party comrades and Spiked Online hangers-on – such as Claire Fox – the party began to set its sights on the inevitable forthcoming General Election.
Claiming that it was revolutionising politics by offering ordinary people the chance to be MPs, in May, the Brexit Party invited rank-and-file Brexiters to apply to be parliamentary candidates. By June, it was boasting that more than 3,000 had applied.
But, here was the curious thing. As I revealed at the time, having filled in a short form, candidates were then asked for a non-refundable £100 ‘handling fee’.
That link stayed live long after Farage had paraded his first 100 candidates in public and long after the secretive selection meetings in Vauxhall had found the rest. It was finally taken down in late summer and, in that time, it is anyone’s guess as to how many people applied.
We know that the Brexit Party received 3,000 applications in early June and it would not be unreasonable to (conservatively) assume that there were at least a further thousand in the following three months – bringing the sum total of money raised in this manner to £400,000.
It was obvious that many thousands more hopefuls had signed up than could ever be accommodated or processed by the Brexit Party’s small team. As the weeks went by, a surprising number of disaffected applicants cottoned on to this and turned to me to express their fury. Farage had angered many of his core supporters but, with typical disdain, he barely paused to breathe as the Brexit Party cavalcade rolled on.
When the final list of 600 prospective MPs was revealed, it was fascinating to note quite how many chums had been granted plum constituencies. Anyone who had applied to be or was an MEP for the Brexit Party had the £100 fee waived. A number of sitting MEPs, including Ann Widdecombe, Rupert Lowe, Martin Daubney, Alexandra Phillips, the hedge fund manager Robert Rowland, Matthew Patten and Richard Tice all became parliamentary candidates. While it was clear that a few had made it through the online selection process, thousands more had simply been taken for a ride.
A great number of the selected candidates had been picked because they were already on the inside. I was told of one man who boasted loudly during a hospital appointment that he was going to be a parliamentary candidate because he had once gone bass fishing with Nigel Farage.
When the General Election was called on 6 November, Farage and his team paraded 600 candidates and declared themselves ready. But, curiously, Farage himself decided not to stand. It seemed odd that the leader of this exciting new political force wasn’t prepared to storm his way to Parliament on a tide of populist, pro-Brexit sentiment.
Farage claimed modestly that he could better serve the party by touring the country than running for a seat. In truth, he has always been little more than a political heckler. He wants responsibility in the same way that a herring lusts after a life on the land.
For a party hoping to get MPs elected, you would think that there’d be a manifesto. But there isn’t one. In fact, beyond Brexit, the party only appears to have two or so policies. If elected, it would halve overseas aid, which helps the very poorest people in the world, and scrap inheritance tax, which benefits the very wealthiest 4% in the UK.
Brexit Party MEPs are the richest, by far, of any party in the EU Parliament. According to EU integrity Watch, they collectively earn up to €4,683,916 on top of their EU salaries. For such a purportedly anti-elite bunch, they are very rich indeed and sit, for the most part, in the earning bracket that would most benefit from the abolition of inheritance tax.
Not that the party is likely to win many seats.
Since next month’s General Election was called, the Brexit Party has stagnated in the polls. Farage’s attempts to create a Brexit alliance with the Tories was publicly rebuffed. Since then, presumably in part to save face and money, it has unilaterally declared that it will be standing down 317 candidates in Conservative seats and concentrate its efforts on Labour and Lib Dem ones.
The news came as a shock to many of its selected candidates. Darren Selkus, the candidate in Epping, only discovered that he was no longer running to be an MP when a man in a van pulled up next to his stall in the constituency and told him he had heard on the radio that he shouldn’t be bothering. Selkus was furious and dozens of other angry candidates, including MEP Alexandra Phillips, took to social media to complain. Many of the 317 had upturned their lives to run in the General Election. Some had given up their lives or taken unpaid leave and now they were being unceremoniously dumped.
Even as this was going on, Farage was busy announcing new candidates. The Apprentice star Michelle Dewberry was declared the Brexit Party candidate for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle this week, while Richard Tice, the Brexit Party’s chairman, was parachuted into Hartlepool – one of the few seats the party could win. As the deadline for nominations neared, there was an almighty shuffle as preferred candidates were moved into seats and others pushed out. Happily, there was still time to find a potential seat for Ed Punchard in Tynemouth – despite him living 9,000 miles from his potential constituency in East Fremantle, Western Australia.
Since Byline Times broke the story of the Brexit Party’s £100 charge for potential candidates in June, it has slowly gained traction across the mainstream media.
Pressure began to mount on Farage to refund the money to the 317 dumped parliamentary candidates. Challenged by LBC’s Eddie Mair on the matter, the Brexit Party leader said he would not be paying the money back.
That £31,700 is but the tip of the iceberg, of course.
Farage and his Brexit Party associates have raised millions of pounds during the course of this year and the full amount might never be known. Most of that money has come from donations from ordinary people who have handed over hard-earned cash in good faith. Others have given free time at their own expense to help the Brexit Party machine – and it all seems for the sum total of nothing.
The only winnable seat in this General Election is being contested by the Brexit Party’s multi-millionaire chairman. The few ordinary candidates there were seem to have been swept aside in favour of reality TV stars and chums of the party leadership.
Farage has returned the loyalty of his followers with a giant helping of contempt. How long will those who have remained steadfast let him get away with it? Or will he be brought down by the wrath of his own people?