Yacht club populism

No small boats for Nigel Farage — he prefers the big ones


“READY TO SAVE BRITAIN,” read one of the three slogans in front of Nigel Farage, as he stood at the Royal Cinque Ports Yacht Club in Dover. In fact, as we learned last week, the Reform Party’s “Honorary President” is only available for Britain-saving that fits in around his American TV work. Don’t judge him for it: Clark Kent had similar problems juggling his journalistic responsibilities.

Don’t let the location’s name fool you, either. The Yacht Club has seen better days and is, apparently, scheduled for demolition. On a foggy, rainy morning, the vibe was more Fawlty Towers than Succession.

The Conservatives seem to be aiming at “Mug a teen, give their wallet to a gran”

Farage had emerged from the Victory Bar wearing his trademark Mr Toad smirk.  Who else, not even a party leader or candidate in the election, can summon hacks including the BBC’s political editor out to seaside towns for a 10am start? This was, as it turned out, to be the theme of his speech: that he is a big man of politics, a man who set the pace on Brexit and is now setting the pace on small boats.

Rishi Sunak? Keir Starmer? “Middle managers,” he spat, dismissively. Farage eschews such career safety. He has the air of a salesman making it big on commission: time shares, possibly, or crypto.

And we were there because his sales pitches are tremendously effective. There’s a plausibility to his argument that without him we’d still be in the European Union, and probably not talking as much about small boats. Indeed, the best explanation for Sunak’s policy blitz of the last few days is that he’s worried about the number of voters he’s losing to Reform.

Most of these voters are, ahem, older, which explains Tuesday’s Big Tory Offer on pensions. It had a catchy name: “Triple Lock Plus,” which made it sound like a dishwasher tablet. We are two weeks away from Triple Lock Plus Platinum Ultra, which shifts even dried egg. It’s been said that the ideal British election campaign is “Hang the paedos, save the NHS”. The Conservatives seem to be aiming at “Mug a teen, give their wallet to a gran”.

Reform are currently polling around 11 per cent, and an increased presence from Farage may see them moving to 15 per cent. The Conservatives, on 23 per cent and falling, are racing to beat them there.

On Tuesday, Farage was in a reflective mood. “I’m an issues campaigner above all,” he said. Other words are available. UKIP, his previous party but one, was always a pressure group, he said, rather than a government-in-waiting. Was this something he mentioned when he was leading it? If so, I missed it. But Reform, on the other hand, is apparently a party in search of power, with a six-year plan: destroy the Tories at this election, replace them next time. On this, Farage said, “Richard Tice agrees totally.”

Ah yes, Tice. The official leader of Reform couldn’t be with us, for some reason. Tice’s relationship with Farage has the makings of a drama, or possibly a sitcom. He has the title of “leader”, but not the authority: Reform is a limited company, and Farage is the majority shareholder. You may be aware that Labour runs its affairs on the basis of “One Member, One Vote”. Reform has something similar: there is one member who has a vote, and his name is Nigel.

The issue he had brought us to Dover to discuss was small boats. “Rishi can’t stop the boats,” he said. Farage had seen all this coming years ago, and warned of the dangers, but no one had listened to him.

“Those gangs on the other side —” here he gestured out of the window towards France, sadly hidden in the fog. The weather meant no boats were coming today. “One did set off, but the weather was too bad,” Farage told us. “It’s turned back.” Was there a hint of disappointment in his voice? Imagine the pictures if he’d been able to address us with some refugees arriving in the background.

Was he trying to join the Tories or destroy them?

For all the sound and fury, there’s some cross-party alignment over small boats: no one is arguing that more people should be crossing the Channel. Did Farage have a better way of stopping them? He wants the French government to try harder and, more radically, call the bluff of migrants threatening to throw themselves into the water, pour décourager les autres.

Why wasn’t he standing in this election himself? “We did have a six-month plan,” he said, but he had been caught out by Sunak calling the election in July. “I’m very disappointed.” More cynical people than me would question whether anyone surprised by an election being called four years and seven months into a five-year parliament ought to be giving lectures on foresight.

Was he trying to join the Tories or destroy them? “They’ve destroyed themselves!” he laughed. “They don’t need my help!”

He was asked about things he’d said about Muslims. Lesser politicians might get nervous at suggestions of racism. Not Farage. People had accused him of hating Jews, he replied, and people had accused him of hating Muslims. “You can’t call me Islamophobic and antisemitic at the same time!” That got a big laugh from the party supporters in the room. Imagine doing two racisms at once! What kind of person would be capable of such sophistication?

Hand in pocket, Farage smiled out at us. He enjoys playing the provincial countries, but the big money is in America.

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