The bell tolls for Nigel Farage’s party – one good outcome of the General Election?
In the summer of 2016, a few days after the EU Referendum, Nigel Farage gathered his UKIP MEPs and allies together to make an announcement.
The days of the United Kingdom Independence Party were over, he said, and the future lay in a new movement that would mimic the style and form of Geert Wilders’ PVV in the Netherlands. Its presence would be predominantly online and social media-based and it would penetrate corners that UKIP could not reach. The party would be more global in outlook, forging links with the US and funding would be generated through online donations.
UKIP loyalists at the meeting were taken aback. The party had just helped deliver a seismic shock to the status quo by being the driving force behind the Leave majority in the EU Referendum. Many ordinary Kippers had dedicated themselves to the party, committing time and money. What was the logic in throwing in the towel now when they had such momentum?
Farage doesn’t do dissent. Furious that he wasn’t getting his own way, he quit the leadership a few days later. “What I said during the referendum campaign is I want my country back,” he said. “What I’m saying today is I want my life back. And it begins right now.”
Without the dear leader at its helm, UKIP quickly began to falter. Over the course of the next three years, the party went on to have five leaders and six interim leaders. Once a major political force, UKIP is now polling at 0% in the YouGov tracker –down considerably on the 25% it hit in October 2014.
UKIP without Farage was like Bros without Matt and Luke.
Once he was gone (although he was still claiming his massive MEP salary) he showed not one jot of concern for the 45,000-strong party he had abandoned like an old pair of pants. Farage had his eyes set on a bigger prize – fame and fortune, preferably Stateside.
Over the next year-and-a-half, he did everything in his power and Arron Banks pockets’ to ‘break America’. He sucked up to Steve Bannon and, in a cringe-inducing turn, called him “the greatest thinker in the Western hemisphere” at an event in Alabama. He stalked Donald Trump relentlessly until he was granted a selfie by a gold-encrusted lift in Trump Tower and then stalked him again, until he was allowed to watch him eat a hamburger. He even grew a moustache, presumably to look more like his political hero Enoch Powell, and slapped on the fake tan until he resembled a teak forest in autumn.
Farage had bought his own hype. He really thought he would be big in the US. But it didn’t work out that way.
He did a couple of spots on Fox News and got a mention or two from Trump, but the offers didn’t come flooding in – and nor did any money. Soon he was back in the UK, kicking his heels and taking up the only offer on the table: a nightly hour-long show on LBC.
Brexit meanwhile was faltering and, as it did, Farage saw a chance to return centre stage. I and others have written at length as to how that played out and how, in the course of less than a year, the Brexit Party Ltd fulfilled Farage’s 2016 ambition of creating an online PVV style movement.
Whatever one thinks of Farage, it is undeniable that he is a talented politician, with the ability to draw people in, and that he managed to create a movement which went from nowhere to briefly peaking at 26% in the polls. It was an extraordinary achievement.
But there was a problem.
From the start, the Brexit Party sought to distance itself from UKIP’s right-wing, slightly fruitcake image and portray itself as the bigger political entity that Farage had envisaged back in 2016. But, as a largely online movement, it lacked local branches and grassroots. The party was not rooted in the same way that UKIP had been. In addition, it was seeking to pull in personnel from very disparate backgrounds. Prospective candidates included hedge fund managers, former Revolutionary Communists, minor TV personalities, failed and former Conservative politicians and Labour councillors. Ordinary rank-and-file Brexit Party enthusiasts found themselves overlooked and their concerns ignored, even as the party machine gobbled up their £100 applications and £25 donations.
Through this, Farage has gradually alienated a great number of his previously loyal fans and supporters. I have spoken to many Brexit Party activists, UKIP politicians and rank-and-file Brexiters who all came to feel that they had been conned or that, at the end of the day, Farage was about nothing more than Nigel.
“The wool has come off my eyes,” one former high-profile Brexit politician and one-time Farage loyalist told me this week. “What’s happened with the Paypal stuff – it’s all as dodgy as hell. He and his mates are just in it for themselves.”
Another Brexit Party supporter, who applied to be a prospective parliamentary candidate, told me this week: “The end can’t come soon enough – they’re finished. I cannot in all truth see them lasting beyond the election and, after that, what’s going to happen to all that money they’ve raised? Where’s it all going to go? It’s like a scam.”
The imminent demise of the Brexit Party has been hastened by the decision of four of its MEPs to quit and back the Conservatives in the General Election (although they have selflessly decided to stay on as MEPs and take those €105,000 a year salaries). While rats and sinking ships come to mind, it can’t be a coincidence that all four defectors have strong links with the Tories.
Annunziata Rees-Mogg is the sister of Jacob Rees-Mogg, while her colleague Lucy Harris is dating his special advisor Hugh Bennett. Smoked fish magnate Lance Forman (real name Lance Anisfeld) once worked for Peter Lilley and his son, Oliver, is the CEO of Turning Point UK which has been publicly backed by Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Tory MPs. The fourth defector, John Longworth, is on the advisory committee of Tufton Street ‘think tank’ the Institute for Economic Affairs, which has long established links to the Conservative Party.
I have been told that the defection and decision to publicly back Boris Johnson was initially planned for Sunday night for maximum benefit to the Conservatives. But, when Longworth had the whip removed, it was brought forward. Farage has been stitched up like a kipper. He is reportedly furious at the betrayal and is convinced that Lucy Harris’s partner Hugh Bennett played a significant role in persuading her and her colleagues to quit the Brexit Party.
It’s no secret that Annunziata Rees-Mogg has long harboured ambitions to be a Conservative MP and perhaps she senses, or has been led to believe, that her moment has come.
The remaining Brexit Party MEPs seem rattled. Some have taken to Twitter to express their sense of betrayal by their colleagues but, even as they do, they must be quietly looking to the left and right and wondering who will be next. The party is currently polling at around 3% in a downward slide to oblivion.
Had the Brexit Party put down solid grassroots in constituencies rather than randomly allocating Farage’s mates to seats, it might have weathered the storm. But, its rootlessness and broad base is now proving to be its undoing. Even the most optimistic Brexit Party loyalist must see that Farage’s party, as a meaningful political entity, now looks to be over.
Farage’s plan to create a platform for his ambitions has failed. While it’s unlikely that he will disappear into anonymity any time soon, his imminent electoral humiliation won’t be pretty. Any climb back will be long and painful and one that he probably won’t deem worth the effort.
Expect to see Farage do something else after 13 December as the Brexit Party without his active participation will soon go the way of UKIP and fax machines. In many ways, it has been a victim of its own success. After all, Boris Johnson’s Tories have stolen all of its ideas.