Five years after UKIP stormed to victory in Brussels in 2014, Nigel Farage has, once again, burst onto the centre-stage of British politics. Like clockwork, he has enthusiastically played his role by emerging from his media bunker to squeal and squawk about the hot button issue du jour, duly upending the political status quo and sending the entirety of SW1A into a mad frenzy.
This particular instance of Very British Populism was especially impressive; less than four months after stepping back into the ring, Farage had pollsters predicting he would somehow defy the laws of electoral physics by making his new party the largest in the Commons at the first crack, presumably allowing him to become Prime Minister.
Back on Earth, the only actual achievement of Farage’s latest outing is the Brexit Party’s thumping victory in last month’s European elections. In an unimaginative sequel brought success only by an inimitable box office draw, Farage recreated his soaring triumph at the helm of UKIP, and then some.
He rode the wave of anti-establishment fury and concocted a perfect storm of voter anger. Following the instructions on page one of The Populist’s Cookbook to the letter, Farage identified the most emotive and divisive political issue of the moment, named his brand spanking new party after it and proceeded to take the most hardline possible position on it while refusing to engage on any other issue. The result was what the US military might call the Mother of all Protest Votes.
Relegating the governing Conservatives to fifth place in a national election and delivering their worst ever result to their doorstep is no small feat. The commentariat, however, in keeping with its character, has made it out to be much more significant than it actually is. The gap between a protest vote in an inconsequential election and an electoral upheaval on a par with a minor revolution is nothing less than gaping.
The fact that talk of tearing apart the two-party system has become unavoidably commonplace is thanks to that rather alarming election polling, which now appears to suggest a four-way tie with Farage’s motley crew and the foul-mouthed Lib Dems. Of course, the way Westminster works is designed to hold crackpots comfortably at arm’s length and keep everything nice and cushy.
As a result, even if Farage were to succeed in translating his quinquennial protest vote into a sizeable showing at a general election (which he hasn’t, can’t and won’t) our incomparable First Past the Post system would chew it up and spit it out in the form of a Brexit-cancelling government made up of edgy Marxists and either the even edgier Lib Dem Big Kids or those bonkers separatists from up north, with Farage wielding about as much parliamentary power as the Change for Independence Group UK.
In short, the idea that Farage was ever going to use Brexit to single-handedly overhaul the two-party system like a competitor for the world’s strongest man tipping over a lorry is what Robert Louis Stevenson would have called unscientific balderdash. Farage was only able to achieve last month’s dazzling numbers because of the omnishambles of a Brexit delay, elections nobody wanted, a lame duck Prime Minister, fuming Tory grassroots and a single-issue policy debate.
Before long, we will have a Brexiteer Conservative in Number 10, “Treason May” will be consigned to the backbenches, the Tory members will have a leader they do not actively despise, and the Brexit date of 31 October will be set in stone. What, then, does Farage campaign for? His single-issue platform is whisked away from under him and he toddles off back to the LBC studios as fast as his kitten heels will carry him.
Even before any of that has happened, Farage’s hard-won momentum is crumbling before his eyes. The Brexit Party revealed recently to much surprise that it will be taking a hardline socialist stance on issues of economics, beginning with the sweeping nationalisation of Britain’s manufacturing industries.
Richard Tice, the party chairman with buckets of business gravitas and impossibly pointy cheekbones, unveiled the policy to bring British Steel under the broad wing of the state, making John McDonnell’s notably less toned cheeks flush red with lefty fury.
This bizarre manifestation of nationalism is a case in point. The coalition of angry voters that is propping up the Brexit Party’s claims to relevance is exceedingly flimsy. By extending its raison d’être to include not one but two whole policies, it has unilaterally alienated a hefty chunk of its backers – people who support Brexit and also believe in vaguely right-wing economics.
Farage has stuck two fingers up at his base by indulging in this bizarre Trumpian protectionism. If that is what happens with two confirmed Brexit Party policy positions, then by the time they publish a complete manifesto, their polling numbers might actually dip below zero.
Much of Farage’s political prowess has emigrated in the last five years. He used his last major moment in the sun to brilliant effect, pressuring poor old Dave into a referendum commitment and thereby changing the course of British politics for a generation. This second moment of national attention, though, has been squandered in its entirety through wildly unattainable expectations, a failure to foresee the inevitable rise of a Brexiteer Tory leader and, crucially, an apparent impotence to capitalise on the momentum.
Earlier this year, Extinction Rebellion brought London to a standstill. Because they are fruitcakes, they used their immense political capital to insist that we start using the phrase “climate emergency” all the time. Just two months on from the protests, Extinction Rebellion is a big, cheesy nothingburger with no legacy to speak of.
In exactly the same way, the Brexit Party has wasted the invaluable heed it drew by using the split second when everyone was listening to it to demand its bafflingly dim MEPs be included in Brexit negotiations. This is despite the fact that the negotiations have concluded, and a key component of their Brexit policy is that they must not be resumed.
Perhaps their political capital would have been put to better use by demanding a Noel Edmonds-style deal-or-no-deal referendum, thereby cementing Brexit as Britain’s future and probably making No Deal more likely. They could have argued that the Leave/Remain parley has already been concluded, and that the only remaining question is how we should go about leaving.
That would have allowed for a concerted “tell ‘em again” campaign in which hardcore Brexiteers could have finally sought their much-desired ringing endorsement for a hard Brexit. It would have snatched the wind from the People’s Voters’ sails and smashed through the parliamentary impasse. Two rather large birds with one populist stone.
Instead, Farage and co chose to use their precious time at the centre of our political discourse fannying about in front of Number 10 and then complaining that the government did not bow to their will. A golden opportunity wasted. Now, No Deal can only happen if Boris whole-heartedly commits to it, and even then it would be far from certain thanks to the obstructionism of John [Bollocks to] Bercow.
The only thing we know for sure going forward is that, whatever happens with Brexit, Nigel Farage and his ragtag horde of perpetually incensed imps will be watching from a sedentary position.