The riddle of Brexit’s ruthless survivor

Michael Crick casts Farage as a vampiric figure, draining others to sustain dominance

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Nigel Farage, Michael Crick tells us at the end of this impressive biography, is one of the great politicians of post-war Britain. He ranks alongside Thatcher, Blair, Salmond and Johnson for impact on our country and its direction, Crick reckons, because without Farage there’d have been no referendum and no Brexit. He may never have been elected to Parliament, but who cares? He’s historically important.

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage, Michael Crick (Simon & Schuster, £25)

I largely agree. I also think Farage’s absence from Parliament at Westminster is a sign of how our political establishment remains unwilling to learn the lessons of that referendum and admit the people who were shut out of national conversation for too long. Glance at some of the people deemed worthy of ermine and tell me Farage shouldn’t have been made a peer long ago. And if you’re wondering, I voted Remain.

But I don’t want political biography to confirm my prior views. I want it to tell me things I didn’t know, and help me understand the subject — and their times — better. By that measure, Crick does a very good job, especially on the detail, though he sometimes falls short when it comes to the big picture.

Having cast his subject in such grand terms, the ultimate prize for Crick here is not to tell us how Farage came to be so “disruptive” — that is a broadly familiar story, after all — but why. What caused him to do what he did, with such consequence?

Start with Farage the man. Like many very famous politicians, Farage’s character is both very familiar and unknown. Most people think they have a sense of the man, all cheery bombast in a covert coat.
In fact, Crick proves there’s a lot more to him than that, even if we only catch glimpses of the man behind the performance. That man can be sullen and withdrawn. He can be sensitive to criticism, especially when it relates to racism. He gets nervous before speeches. He’s capable of great kindness: he re-employs a young gambling-addicted former aide who served time in the US for serious financial crimes. He writes tenderly to his lover on their parting.

Farage had a habit of putting his shagees on the public payroll

Or rather, one of his lovers, for there are many. Too many for even the fastidious Crick to name them all, for being married with children is clearly no bridle on Farage’s appetites. Perhaps one reason Farage was so successful in screwing the British political establishment was that he’d had so much practice.

Some of Farage’s friends have protested that his personal life is subject to much more scrutiny than any other senior politician. After all, what business is it of ours if he keeps a string of mistresses? He never claimed to be a saint and has never preached about the sanctity of marriage, and being a serial shagger has no obvious bearing on anyone’s views on British sovereignty.

Farage speaking during the launch of the UKIP election manifesto in April 2010

Except that, as Crick delicately demonstrates, Farage had a habit of putting his shagees on the public payroll via his role in the European Parliament: at one point, his biographer suggests that at least three of Farage’s women were so employed. And this from a man who became an MEP on a promise not to benefit from the Parliament’s lavish system of allowances.

If Farage the lover is a bit less than admirable, he’s still a titan of virtue compared to Farage the political operator. Crick, a forensically tenacious reporter, is at his best when he dissects, in merciless detail, the long, long line of colleagues and comrades Farage used and discarded on his long march into the history books. The roll call of people who believed that Farage was a friend and ally and on their side, right until the moment his knife slipped between their ribs, is too long to repeat in full here.

Crick lovingly chronicles the serial betrayals, though. No minor UKIP office-bearer let down and cast aside is too obscure for this history, which casts Farage as an almost vampiric figure, draining the life from others to sustain his decades of dominance over UKIP and its successor, the Brexit Party.

Here, in no particular order, are just some of those left feeling aggrieved by the great man’s infidelity, political dishonesty and unlimited self-interest:

  • Alan Sked, who founded the UK Independence Party
  • Richard North, a Kipper intellectual
  • Douglas Carswell, the Tory defector who became UKIP’s first elected MP
  • Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn, MEPs who believed they could broaden UKIP’s appeal
  • Lord Rannoch of Pearson, who served as one of several interim UKIP leaders until Farage felt like taking the job back
  • Neil Hamilton, a disgraced former Tory MP whose fame Farage briefly thought useful
  • Robert Kilroy-Silk, whose profile and ego almost made him a match for Farage
  • Catherine Blaiklock, who set up the Brexit Party and handed it on a plate to Farage, who binned her barely weeks later
  • Even “the Bristol-based businessman” Arron Banks, the skinny-dipping drinking companion who bankrolled the post-Brexit act of the Farage drama, appears to have been cast aside.

Beyond euroscepticism of varying shades, these people have little in common, but all appear to have made the same mistake: trusting a man of pathological disloyalty to behave faithfully towards them.

Why? It’s often said that politics is a cynical business but that’s not true: most people in politics are believers, or want to be, which is why they’ll swallow it whole when someone touched with charisma promises that this time will be different. Bigger parties do it better than Farage and UKIP ever did, because they weren’t one-man bands. Richard Tice, the current leader of Reform UK — the Brexit Party’s current incarnation — must experience some interesting emotions when he hears Farage insist that he has no interest in ever taking that leadership for himself.

Maybe Farage was happier when Britain was still in the union

In Crick’s account, all this scheming and betraying ensures that Farage can use UKIP largely as his own personal vehicle, a way for him to thrust himself into the limelight whenever possible and display his undoubted talents as a debater and wit. But again, the question is: why? Farage the political operator is captured here, but Farage’s political thinking proves much more elusive. What are Nigel Farage’s politics? Even after more than 500 pages of Crick’s methodical investigations, the answer is not wholly clear. He has no apparent interest in policies — his UKIP had manifestos but he didn’t read them — and the last philosophy he read appears to have been JS Mill’s On Liberty as a teenager. The best guess is that he’s a golf-club Tory from his own imagined version of the 1950s, his brass-buttoned blazer impregnated with the faint aroma of brimstone.

Farage as an 18-year-old Combined Cadet Force member

In 1982, Enoch Powell gave a speech at Dulwich College in south London. In the audience was the 18-year-old Nigel Farage, who immediately adopted Powell as a lifelong hero. Fourteen years before, Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech had seen him cast out of politics. Idolising him appears entirely consistent with Farage’s views as a schoolboy. This account shows the young Farage being at least sympathetic to racist and far-Right positions, in addition to stories of the boy using unabashedly racist language.

That’s striking context for what comes later. Crick details how in 1997, Farage went for lunch with Mark Deavin, a BNP activist, and then met Tony Lecomber, a convicted racist thug. These weren’t people normal, displaced Tories tended to somehow meet.

Farage has always strongly refuted any allegations of racism or bigotry. Crick, who assembles considerable evidence to challenge that position, largely gives him the benefit of the doubt, though not all readers will be so generous. Farage’s admirers will be more inclined to accept his argument that he did more than anyone to drive the overtly racist BNP out of British politics.

What all can agree on is that national identity and immigration are central to Farage’s own politics, perhaps even more important to him than the European issue. This is where Farage’s views are almost stunningly unclear. We know he never liked the EEC, EC then EU. But what did he want to do about that? He was a very late convert to the idea of a referendum on membership — he had to be bounced into supporting it on live TV — instead holding the fanciful Powellite notion that a majority in Parliament could be persuaded to end that membership.

Farage walking past a lorry bearing a campaign message in London, 2016

Before and after the 2016 vote, he appeared to favour a Norwegian form of soft Brexit. During the morass of the Theresa May years, he even came close to conceding the case for a second referendum. Sad as he would have been to be at the centre of another campaign, still less to lose it (or rather, see the Tories lose it) and stay in the warm embrace of the European Parliament.

Longstanding leavers and hard Brexiteers, in other words, could be forgiven for considering  Farage very definitely not One of Us. Maybe he was happier when Britain was still in the union, since that gave him a clear role and never-ending attention; Farage has certainly enjoyed less prominence since we left, no matter how much he insists he’s loving his new life as a broadcaster.

On domestic issues, Farage has some Thatcherite leanings of his own, perhaps to his political detriment. Farage’s occasional criticism of the NHS sometimes cost him an audience with voters in what we now call the Red Wall. This leads to an intriguing What If question: could Farage have been even more electorally successful in the early 2010s if he’d added the anti-austerity cause to his populism? Could Faragist euroscepticism combined with populist economics have caused even more disruption by the middle of the last decade, and finally built a party instead of a vehicle?

If Farage is a poor general, how did he win big battles?

It seems quite likely that thought never even occurred to Farage, who emerges from this book as a hopeless political strategist. His various attempts to become an MP all fail, because he consistently picks the wrong places to fight, sometimes diverting UKIP resources away from places where the party has a real chance. Under a better leader, UKIP would have won the 2014 Heywood and Middleton by-election over Labour and begun a real march into Labour’s rotting heartlands. But Farage was myopically focused on Clacton where his soon-to-be enemy Carswell would win his own by-election at a canter.

Farage moments before talking to the crowd in Parliament Square at the Leave Means Leave Brexit Celebration on 31 January 2020

Here you may ask, if Farage is such a poor general, how on earth did he win such big battles? How did a man who operates at such a small scale — and no one does petty and vindictive quite like him — come to have such a large effect? This is where Crick is open to criticism, because his history of Farage is far too light on the wider political context that made it possible for his subject to become that historical figure.

Immigration is a prime example. Tony Blair’s decision in 2004 to allow Eastern EU nationals free entry to the UK (and the refusal of France and Germany to do likewise) is a fundamental part of the Brexit history. It sent immigration shooting up the electorate’s list of concerns, could be discussed in non-racially freighted terms, and finally made EU membership tangible and visible to many.

Hitherto, sceptics had talked about abstractions such as sovereignty and procedure: Britain was never going to leave the EU over weights and measures. But EU migration transformed the European issue, a bolt of lightning that Farage rode all the way.

Yet this pivotal part of the Brexit story and of Farage’s story gets remarkably little attention from Crick, who is sometimes too busy re-fighting old battles from his time as a Channel Four sleuth to describe the wider political landscape. His book could easily lose a hundred pages of the minutiae of dubious UKIP organisation and funding — there’s an entire chapter on a Kent call centre that is largely pointless, however much Farage might have sweated about it at the time — to make room for proper coverage of what the rest of the political world was doing as Farage rose.

That’s especially true of the Conservatives, who when it comes to Farage provided another illustration of Robert Conquest’s Second Law: the behaviour of an organisation can best be predicted by  assuming it to be controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.

Farage’s steady rise to national prominence over the first 15 years of this century came as the Conservatives repeatedly made his case for him, then insisted they would not act on that case. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard all told voters that EU membership was bad for their country and they’d been denied a say on that. Then came David Cameron, whose handling of the European question was so adroit that the Conservative message could eventually be captured by my friend Alex Massie’s lethal summary: “UKIP are right. Don’t vote for them.”

Cameron became Conservative leader in 2005 with the support of many Tory sceptics, claiming to buy his promise to pull the party’s MEPs out of the federalist European People’s Party grouping. Not for the first time, David Davis wasn’t cute enough in a race to deliver eurosceptic desires, failing to make this pledge in his losing leadership campaign.

Farage emerges from yet another night of boozing to get back on the stump

“Dave” then made a “cast-iron” guarantee to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, which he promptly abandoned shortly before becoming PM. His hitherto invincible ratings against Gordon Brown never recovered from that, Tory anti-Europeans sourly noted. And his diminished poll standing ended with the hung 2010 general election result that, though it didn’t seem like this to many at the time, put him at the mercy of his own backbenchers, whose righteous fury was greatly added to by the number of frontbench spots they lost out on to Lib Dem ministerial cuckoos.

This stuff was catnip to Farage and his kippers, who for several years referred to Dave as “Cast Iron”. Yet oddly, none of this is set out in Crick’s book, even though it makes copious room for intricate discussions of UKIP’s relations with other groups and parties in the European Parliament. The result is sometimes like reading an account of a yachtsman making a great solo voyage that tells you all about the boat’s rigging and navigation but never mentions the sea or the wind. Farage may have caught the breeze and used it to take him where he wanted to go, but many others made the weather.

Farage with US President Donald Trump at a rally in Arizona on 28 October 2020

His entanglement with Donald Trump is a similar case. Buried in Crick’s narrative is confirmation that this was largely something that happened to Farage, not something he made happen — the Donald, watching Britain and Europe from afar, saw an opportunity to use Farage, so reached out and drew him into Trumpworld. There is something almost Zeliglike about this account of Farage reshaping himself to adopt Trump’s agenda, the self-proclaimed classical liberal embracing  protectionism like a buxom intern unwise enough to fall for his charms.

So did Farage make history just by being in the right place at the right time? There’s certainly an element of that here. But there’s something else, rooted in what may just be Farage’s most important trait, one much under-rated in politics: stamina. Time after time in this tale, Farage emerges from yet another night of boozing to get back on the stump, back on camera. Year after year, he keeps on keeping on. He endures. Aaron Sorkin wrote that decisions are made by those who show up, and Farage always shows up, whatever the weather.

No doubt the man himself, excessively fascinated by wartime generations who fought real battles for freedom, would prefer a Churchillian phrase. “Keep buggering on,” Churchill wrote. That is just what Nigel Farage has done, never minding where he got to, as long as it wasn’t him who was buggered.

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