Welcome to the jungle

Is Farage a big beast or just a paper tiger?

Artillery Row

So, the rumours were true after all. Nigel Farage is a contestant on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, following in the footsteps of others from the world of politics — namely Christine Hamilton, Edwina Currie, Lembit Opik, Robert Kilroy-Silk, Stanley Johnson, Kezia Dugdale, Nadine Dorries, and of course, Matt Hancock. Farage’s foray into the jungle comes during a good year for the politician-turned-GB News presenter. His crusade against his de-banking by Coutts saw him claim the scalp of NatWest boss Dame Alison Rose (the £1.5m ITV fee should be enough for a Coutts account). The conference season saw him become star of the Tory show, his presence in Manchester was a magnet for adoring selfies. Social media was alight with footage of him throwing shapes with Dame Priti Patel to the sound of Frank Sinatra. Naturally, this fuelled speculation that he could soon return to the Tory fold after more than three decades away. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak refused to rule out the possibility of a Farage comeback. Fellow GB news presenter Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg pleaded for a comeback. Even Security Minister Tom Tugendhat, a figurehead of the Tory left, backed his return (before inevitably backtracking). Sir Simon Clarke, the former cabinet minister, also joined calls for a Farage comeback. In a poll for Sky, thirteen percent of Tory members favoured him not only rejoining the Tories but succeeding Sunak as Tory leader. It is no wonder that an alarmed George Osborne raised the prospect of Farage becoming a Tory Corbyn. No surprise, also, that Farage himself teased that he could soon wear the Tory crown.

This may be a stumbling block to the Cameroons, and foolishness (or worse) to the commentariat, but to many rightwingers it is simply common sense. From their vantage point, the eruption of Farage mania on their fringes is an entirely rational response to the Tories’ parlous state in the polls. To them, Farage is a man of conviction whose genius “single-handedly” (in the words of Tory MP Lee Anderson) delivered Brexit. It was he who transformed an irrelevant, tiny Brexity sect — besmirched as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” — into one of the most highly effective political forces in decades. One which reshaped the contours of British politics irrevocably. How on earth could the Conservative family reject a man of such fortitude, popularity and skill? It is time to welcome back the prodigal son.

Ironically, this analysis is not just held by the right. It is shared — albeit very partially — by many of Farage’s detractors. In 2017, former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Ken Clarke, said on the floor of the Commons “there is absolutely no doubt that Farage is the most successful politician of my generation”. Margaret Thatcher? Tony Blair? Nope, Nigel Farage. Why? Because he beguiled the poor voters into believing some stuff about bendy bananas. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan criticised David Cameron’s appointment saying, “because of Cameron’s weakness, we had this [EU] referendum, his fear of Nigel Farage and the rest is history”. Former Scottish Labour leader Richard Leonard said that Cameron pledged the EU referendum because of Ukip’s victory in the 2014 European elections (the facts do not support this but more on that later). Nish Kumar, obviously one of the funniest comics known to man, said in a podcast bemoaning his appearance on I’m A Celeb that Farage is “ultimately the most significant and influential politician of the last fifteen years in British politics, maybe of this century in British politics”. Why? Because he has “called the tune that the Conservatives have danced to because of their fear of him on their right flank”.

It is not clear to me that Farage could be described as more “significant” than Winston Churchill, or that a government which has considerably liberalised immigration is actually dancing to a Farageist tune, but that’s by the by. In a BBC profile on Nigel Farage, dubbing him as “Mr Brexit”, Brexit was described as “his baby, if anyone is the father”. Boris Johnson? Margaret Thatcher? Enoch Powell? Jacques Delors in a very roundabout way? No, Nigel Farage is the lucky father. Earlier this year, an article in The Guardian asked whether Farage was the most influential politician in the country. The New Statesman placed Farage top on their list of the most influential figures on the right. In both cases, this hinged in large part on his supposed Brexit paternity. It’s hardly a surprise that BBC presenter Samira Ahmed said she was “haunted” by the possibility that the BBC “built up” Farage in the early 2010s. I suppose it is easier for many in the liberal commentariat to blame the referendum result on the saloon bar demagogue rather than question whether their own failings led to the result. Or whether the public simply did not agree with their views on a trade bloc. Of course if they are right then the arguments of Anderson and Rees-Mogg have merit. But do they have merit? Is the narrative true? I think not.

Let’s start with the claim that Farage is a uniquely charismatic figure who “single-handedly” delivered the Brexit result. Far from being an asset to the Eurosceptic cause, the former Ukip leader was a drag on the Leave vote. In his book, All Out War, the journalist Tim Shipman recounts a New Statesman piece on the “Farage paradox” in 2014. It found that increased media exposure for Farage correlated with lower overall public support for leaving the EU (albeit with a higher Ukip vote share). In other words, more exposure to Farage only helped Farage – and nothing and nobody else.

Far from being a boon to his cause, Farage may have been Brexit’s greatest liability

In 2013, YouGov’s tracking poll on support for Brexit showed a sixteen-point lead for leaving the EU. But by April 2014 (a month before UKIP’s victory in the European elections), support for leaving the EU was tied with staying in. In YouGov’s first poll after Farage’s debate with Nick Clegg on Europe ahead of the Euro elections, it gave “In” a six-point lead. Yet only a few months later, in October 2014, months after the “Farage paradox” piece, support for remaining in the EU reached its highest level since 1991, whilst Ukip had some of its best performance in the opinion polls. Nigel Farage, however, had negativeratings in the opinion polls. It was the Farage paradox which made Tory MP Douglas Carswell defect to Ukip in a doomed attempt to detoxify the party. Sir Michael Fabricant, Conservative MP for Lichfield, who had previously called for a pact with Ukip, warned in the pages of The Guardian that the Brexit cause could not be dominated by “Little Englanders”. It was this which made Dominic Cummings and Vote Leave determined to stop Nigel Farage from having any involvement in the main Brexit campaign. Perhaps they did not want to waste time fending off questions about Romanian neighbours, HIV+ immigrants, Bongo Bongo land or whether the freeborn Englishman has an inalienable right to glare at naked breasts in the pages of the Sun.  Even leaving aside the inescapable fact that the official Leave campaign deliberately excluded Farage, it is hard to see how a man who almost certainly reduced support for his cause could have “single-handedly” been responsible for its success.

One example of the Farage paradox is that of the award-winning Times columnist Janice Turner. In early June 2016, the journalist publicly broke from her liberal left compadres, writing a piece for Red magazine expressing support for leaving the EU. But later that month, she revealed in her column that she had in fact plumped for Remain. Why? Farage’s Breaking Point poster was her “breaking point”. And Turner was not alone; there were many Eurosceptic voters who were repelled by Nigel Farage. A trade unionist friend of mine, who had been seriously considering Brexit, also opted for Remain by the end of the campaign. Why? The poisonous undertones of Farage’s efforts on behalf of Brexit. Another who was a researcher for a Labour MP, on the “old right” of the party, made a similar calculation despite his misgivings over the European project. All of this further supports Dominic Cummings’ argument that had Farage become the “most prominent face” of the Brexit campaign, they would have lost “over 600,000 middle class votes”. Indeed, Gisela Stuart, the former Labour MP who chaired Vote Leave, admitted that she would have abstained had Farage been leading the Leave campaign. Far from being a boon to his cause, Farage may have been Brexit’s greatest liability.

Linked to the myth of Farage delivering Brexit is the idea of his unique popularity. This is a man, admirers say, who possesses an electoral Midas touch. But a YouGov poll found that despite being known to 96% of respondents – and therefore one of the most recognisable faces in public life – he is liked by just 26% of respondents and disliked by 53%. A More in Common poll also found that only six percent of voters said they had “a great deal” of trust in Nigel Farage, followed by thirteen percent who had “quite a lot of trust”. 67% of voters said that they distrusted him, with 47% of voters saying they had no trust in him at all. Interestingly, Farage is also distrusted by the three Brexit-supporting voter groups — Loyal Nationals, Disengaged Traditionalists and Backbone Conservatives. Worse for Farage, a considerable majority in each pro-Brexit group expressed distrust in him, and a plurality in each group said they had no trust in him at all. This finding is reinforced by another recent YouGov poll asking voters whether Farage would make “a good or bad leader of the Conservative Party”. Only 21% of voters thought he would make a good leader (with just 8% thinking he would make a “very good leader”) with 57% saying that he would make a bad leader (with 48% saying he would make a ’very bad leader’). More Leave voters and Conservative voters thought that he would make a very bad leader than a very good leader. It is not just that Farage is toxic with the public, he is disliked by the very people he claims to champion.

Even so, there are those who may doubt the gospel of Farage as Brexiteer Jesus but still view him as integral – indispensable, even – to getting a referendum. Without Farage and rising support for his crusade, Cameron would not have called the plebiscite. This too does not stand up to scrutiny for various reasons. Most importantly, there is a matter of chronology – the Bloomberg Speech, in which Cameron pledged a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – was in January 2013. This was over a year before Ukip’s victory in the European elections and well before their strong performances in the polls. As Cameron’s former deputy chief of staff, Carherine Fall explains in her memoirs, The Gatekeeper, the referendum pledge did not affect the Tories’ position in the polls or prevent a Ukip surge. It is also mad to claim that Cameron promised a referendum in early 2013 in response to the result of an election which took place in spring 2014.

Some may argue, nonetheless, that the Bloomberg Speech was in response to rising Ukip support in 2012, echoing former Number 10 pollster Andrew Cooper’s view that Cameron was in part anticipating rising Ukip support if he failed to hold a referendum. By the end of 2012, Ukip were third in the polls and came a strong second in the Rotherham by-election (a sign of things yet to come). However, this ignores the fact that Cameron started planning for a referendum as far back as January 2012. In a tape recorded with his close friend, the Times columnist and peer Daniel Finkelstein, the then Prime Minister said that winter: ‘my long-term view is that Europe is changing and Britain is changing in its relationship to Europe because of the creation of the euro’. Cameron continued with ‘at some stage, altering Britain’s relationship with the EU in some regards and then putting it to a referendum I think would be a good Conservative policy for the next Parliament’. This was a year before the purple army’s rise in the polls and at a time when they were still polling behind the beleaguered Lib Dems.

Cameron’s tape also reveals that there were good reasons, aside from electoral calculations, that converted Cameron to the cause of a referendum. Far from being the best of both worlds, the then Prime Minister saw Britain’s position inside the club but outside the euro as a problem. The “integrationist core” of eurozone states were not only the majority but would prioritise the interests of the single currency over the rest of the single market. The fact he had to veto the Fiscal Compact Treaty — the treaty aimed at shoring up the single currency with financial services regulation and support for weaker eurozone states — demonstrated that Brussels was headed in a different direction to Britain. That Merkel still went ahead with the plan — albeit without a treaty — further underlined this for him. Now one may well disagree with Cameron’s view, but the key point here is that there were significant factors leading him towards a referendum that did not include Nigel Farage and predated Ukip’s rise. Given this, it is not credible to assert that without Farage there would have been no referendum. It is also worth bearing in mind that the Bloomberg Speech made no mention of immigration or free movement, despite ample references to the Eurozone and single market, even though it was the main concern of Ukip voters.

Farageist illusions will not save the Tory right or transform Tory fortunes

There is yet another reason as to why the case for Farage causing the referendum does not stack up: Tory Party management. In October 2011, 81 Conservative MPs voted in favour of a Backbench Business motion calling for an in-out referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. However, there was a three-line whip on Conservative MPs to oppose the motion, which made it the largest rebellion on Europe in parliamentary history. The rebellion also understated the level of Eurosceptic angst among Tory MPs as many prominent Brexiteers, such as Sir Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Gove, were on the payroll vote. Even some who would later become ‘Spartans’, namely Theresa Villiers, Owen Paterson and Mark Francois, backed the Government. There were even some Eurosceptics who later became strong Remainers, namely Phillip Hammond, David Gauke and Sir Oliver Letwin, were known to be countenancing life outside of the EU. All of this happened in the year before Ukip’s rise in the polls.

Why did the rebellion happen? As Catherine Fall admits, the whipping operation was poor. There is also Cameron’s pledge to put the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum which he failed to deliver as it was ratified before he entered office, angering Eurosceptic colleagues. There were also wider structural factors at play. Over thirty years, the Parliamentary Conservative Party had become increasingly Eurosceptic, from 52% in 1992 to 80% in 2010. The fact that the inexperienced Maastricht rebel IDS resoundingly defeated Europhile big beast Ken Clarke in the 2001 leadership contest signified this shift. There is also the People’s Pledge campaign, who organised the petition for a referendum which gained more than 100,000 signatures (triggering the Backbench Business motion and the Commons vote). It is worth noting that while the People’s Pledge campaign had cross-party support from across the political spectrum and civil society, there was scant involvement from Nigel Farage or Ukip. All of this shows that there were a range of factors which were all very significant in delivering the referendum. Some may argue, rightly, that this made a referendum under a Conservative government inevitable. All of this was without Nigel Farage.

If the polls are to be believed, the Conservative Party is heading for defeat at the next election. They are set to lose to a man with less consistency than Boris Johnson and not much more charisma than Herman van Rompuy. Few would contend that such ignominy would be undeserved. But Farageist illusions will not save the Tory right or transform Tory fortunes. And imbibing such myths will simply take them further into the abyss of irrelevance. He may well be great fun in the Australian jungle but Farage is far from the solution to Tory woes.

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