h1

Farage against the machine. Why the Brexit party’s chances are not as good as billed

April 23rd, 2019

Nigel Farage’s second coming has been greeted with fanfares in the media, which love someone who courts publicity and is prepared to do whatever it takes to get it. His gaping maw can be viewed wherever you look, and he has so far been given an unimpeded run for his message that Brexit has been betrayed. His credentials as a strategic genius who delivered Brexit are taken as read. His brilliance as a politician is assumed. The imminent collapse of the current political establishment is expected.  

At the time of writing, he was most recently backed on Betfair at 48 (47/1) for next Prime Minister.  This price is shorter than that for Philip Hammond, Geoffrey Cox, Amber Rudd and David Davis. Since he is not even an MP, this shows remarkable enthusiasm for his chances.

There are a few problems with this narrative. Let’s take a look at them.

Nigel Farage is a really poor political campaigner

Put the referendum to one side for now (I will be coming back to this). His track record in seeking election to Westminster is one of almost unmitigated failure, both for himself and for his party. The only successes have been obtaining the re-election at by-elections of two incumbent MPs. One of these lost his seat at the next election.

He himself has failed to be elected to Parliament on no fewer than seven occasions, including coming third in a two horse race in 2010 when campaigning in the Speaker’s constituency.

He has a better record in the EU elections. The Brexit party can be expected to do well there. For long term impact, however, they are going to need to start making inroads into Westminster. Nothing in Nigel Farage’s past suggests that they will.

His role in the referendum is being hugely overstated

Nigel Farage’s biggest contribution to the referendum was leaning on Conservative MPs to help get it called in the first place. During the referendum campaign he roamed around like a rogue elephant, trampling across the main campaign’s efforts.

He may have reached voters that the main campaign did not reach but he also risked alienating other voters who were also needed with such stunts as his Breaking Point poster. He was certainly one of the more visible figures but he was not so much Svengali as sidekick.

Certainly he did not impress Dominic Cummings, guru of Vote Leave. Among his comments:

“We recruited more active volunteers (~12,000) in 10 months than UKIP in 25 years (~7,000 according to Farage).”

“Farage put off millions of (middle class in particular) voters who wanted to leave the EU but who were very clear in market research that a major obstacle to voting Leave was ‘I don’t want to vote for Farage, I’m not like that’. He also put off many prominent business people from supporting us. Over and over they would say ‘I agree with you the EU is a disaster and we should get out but I just cannot be on the same side as a guy who makes comments about people with HIV’.”

Without Boris, Farage would have been a much more prominent face on TV during the crucial final weeks, probably the most prominent face. (We had to use Boris as leverage with the BBC to keep Farage off and even then they nearly screwed us as ITV did.) It is extremely plausible that this would have lost us over 600,000 vital middle class votes.”

Retrospectively making him into some kind of electoral babe-magnet is rewriting history.

The Brexit party, new as it is, has major problems

Considering the Brexit party is so new, it has a remarkably chequered track record already. It has lost its chief executive over blood-curdling anti-Islamic comments and its treasurer over a pot pourri of anti-semitism, xenophobia and homophobia.

If Labour are struggling with accusations of institutional anti-semitism, the Brexit party seem to have much greater structural problems.  What is it about Nigel Farage that attracts such people?

The Brexit party’s party structure is also going to be limiting unless quickly changed. The party leader is chosen by a committee that is appointed by Nigel Farage. The party supporters get no say. Party democracy is evidently something that Nigel Farage has no time for.

While it is no doubt a great comfort to Nigel Farage that he has the same job security as Arthur Scargill, it will prove a major barrier to obtaining new recruits. Disaffected Conservative MPs will be unwilling to jump ship to a party where their status will be subject to the caprices of a man who many others had fallen foul of once their profile got too high.

This may in turn explain why Nigel Farage has yet again overpromised and underdelivered. We were told that the Brexit party was going to unveil a glittering array of candidates. Instead so far we have got the sister of a backbench Conservative MP and the usual ragbag of committed EU-haters who no one else had heard of. I suppose that this was a step up from a much-touted march that ultimately had fewer than 100 participants. It still suggests that the party structures are again likely to prove an Achilles heel for him.

Nigel Farage has a host of questions to answer about himself that he won’t be able to duck forever

Then we come to the man himself. He has never shown himself particularly deft on the defence rather than on the attack. Perhaps he will break that habit. He will need to.

As Dominic Cummings noted, he has an array of past statements that are voter-repellent (Mike Smithson noted his approach to the NHS, which is far outside the mainstream, on Monday). Those will come back to haunt him – does he still believe them? If not, why did he change his mind?

He also visibly struggles over questions about funding. The ongoing questions about Leave.EU’s finances rumble on. The answers won’t sink the referendum result but the waters lap around Nigel Farage’s feet (which is no doubt why Arron Banks is not being asked to contribute to funding the Brexit party).  

It is also worth noting that the rules on disclosing MPs’ interests are more stringent than those for MEPs. Were he ever to make it eighth (or ninth, or tenth) time lucky, journalists would be queuing up to pore over them.

He will no doubt also be watching with some concern developments over the Mueller report. He was named in passing as a possible conduit to Julian Assange for wikileaks. He was indeed seen at the Ecuadorean embassy. No doubt in due course he will be asked by reporters to explain his bit part in this drama.

Most importantly, he is campaigning on the democratic need to implement Brexit and how the MPs are betraying it. But before and during the referendum campaign he made many statements on Brexit that suggest that he was expecting a much softer Brexit then than he is campaigning for now. At some point he is going to need to come up with a convincing explanation of the discrepancies if he is going to make inroads beyond the permanently aggrieved.

Ultimately, the Brexit party may well prove extremely problematic for the Conservatives, perhaps lethal up to and including the next general election. That does not mean that it will itself have much electoral success and unlike in the 2010-15 Parliament, the diehard right is in no position to impose itself on the government, which has still greater pressures from elsewhere.

All it looks set to do is hand the initiative to pro-EU forces. For all that they are being much-derided at present, CUK look more likely to achieve their policy objectives in relation to Brexit both in the short and in the long term.

Alastair Meeks