The Brexit King of Britain
British voters just gave Nigel Farage the only thing he’s ever wanted. Where does he go from here?
If you talk to Nigel Farage for long enough, you quickly realize that there are two topics that can cause the mask of bonhomie to slip — two things that he hates more than anything else in the world. Those things are the European Union and David Cameron. Today, he has beaten them both.
For the former commodities broker, it has been a long and turbulent journey to this moment. When he first stood as a candidate for Parliament for the newly formed United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), in the Eastleigh by-election in 1994, he came in a dismal fourth, barely edging out Screaming Lord Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony Party by fewer than 200 votes. As recently as last year, he seemed to some like a spent force, having failed to win a seat as an MP in the 2015 general election: He resigned as the UKIP’s leader, then un-resigned, then saw his party plunged into months of damaging infighting.
Even during the referendum campaign, the idea of Farage standing triumphant come June 24 appeared far-fetched. The larger-than-life, beer-drinking voice of the English proletariat had been sidelined by the official “out” campaign, Vote Leave, whose — largely Tory — members were well aware of what was once termed “the Farage paradox”: The fact that as support for UKIP rose, support for Brexit actually tended to fall, with centrist voters put off by his strident anti-immigration tone.
Tensions between the two camps accordingly ran high. Farage praised Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, the senior Tories leading the Leave campaign, but called the campaign’s staff “cretins” and “apparatchiks.” When they ensured he was excluded from the BBC’s big eve-of-referendum debate, his allies circulated the emails and personal phone numbers of senior BBC and Vote Leave staff, urging activists to bombard them with complaints. And when Farage unveiled posters depicting hordes of refugees on Europe’s borders (in an unfortunate echo of Nazi propaganda), Johnson and Gove condemned him as narrow-minded, insular, bigoted, and xenophobic.
By the eve of the vote, it wasn’t just the case that many, including Farage himself, were convinced that Leave would lose. It was that many Euroskeptics were already laying the groundwork for blaming that defeat on their obnoxious fellow traveler. Senior figures in the Leave camp, speaking anonymously, claimed that he’d put off moderate voters — that he cared less about victory and more about positioning the UKIP to mop up disgruntled voters on the losing side, the way the Scottish National Party had after the unsuccessful referendum on independence in 2014.
Instead, today, Farage stands in excelsis. His sacrifice of a career in the city of London, and all its attendant riches, has been vindicated — he has, after innumerable campaigns and a near-fatal plane crash (which left him with debilitating back and shoulder pains), fulfilled what he sees as Margaret Thatcher’s dream of separating Britain from Europe. He started election night with a gloomy appearance at a party hosted by his supporters — only to see his gloom turn to euphoria as the results came in. With Johnson catching up on sleep, it was Farage who became the face of Brexit triumph, launching into three separate victory speeches. During the last, delivered outside Parliament amid a throng of flag-waving activists, he called for June 23rd to become a national holiday — a more palatable comment than his observation in the early hours that Britain had won its independence “without a bullet being fired,” given the fatal shooting of pro-Remain MP Jo Cox last week.
The truth is that, for all his flaws, this referendum would never have happened without Farage. It was he who capitalized on the public’s anxieties about the surge in immigration that started under Labour and continued under the Conservatives. When Cameron broke his “cast-iron guarantee” to offer a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, on the grounds that the treaty had already been passed into law, it was UKIP that gave disillusioned activists and voters a home. And it was this siphoning of support, combined with pressure from the Tory back benches that forced Cameron’s hand.
Similarly, for all his flaws, the referendum could never have been won without Farage. Yes, he was toxic to the undecided voters in the center — those whom Vote Leave targeted with its (false) promises of £350 million (about $477 million) a week that would no longer go to Brussels and its reassurances that the risks of Brexit had been overplayed. But it was Farage who could turn out the hardcore Euroskeptic supporters — who could speak most directly to those who wanted their country’s sovereignty restored and the immigrants kicked out.
Perhaps the most fascinating question is what comes next — what Farage does now, having achieved his heart’s desire, beyond quitting his job as a member of the European Parliament with a song in his heart, and embarking on an extensive victory tour of Britain’s breweries.
Already, there has been a concerted effort from leading Tories to push UKIP back to the margins. A succession of smooth, sensible men and women have been popping up on the news broadcasts to say that the important thing now is to get the right deal, to minimize dislocation, to wait to invoke Article 50 (the formal mechanism by which a country leaves the EU) until after the French elections next spring or the German elections next autumn. Gove and Johnson have also stated explicitly that they do not share Farage’s vision of a low-immigration country: They would like a gate, not a wall.
The line from UKIP has long been that they are the keepers of the true Tory flame, and that once Britain was out of Europe — and the duplicitous, smooth-talking Cameron had been ditched — there could be some kind of reconciliation with the Conservative Party. The veteran political journalist Michael Crick reported this month that Farage had duly been offered a peerage, and a place in a hypothetical Johnson administration. Farage called today for a “Brexit government” — with himself presumably included.
But is such a rapprochement really likely? It is far easier to imagine a future for UKIP as a kind of ginger group, holding the government’s feet to the fire, and in the process continuing to claim the mantle of the true voice of British nativism — as opposed to the treacherous, caviling Westminster elitists who will try to make Out look as much like In as possible.
There is also a bigger prize to be won. One of the surprises of the 2015 general election was the way in which UKIP — traditionally seen as a home for disaffected Tories — hoovered up the votes of Labour supporters in the former industrial heartlands of the North. The UKIP collapse into infighting appeared to stall its progress toward becoming the natural party of opposition in such areas — but the referendum results have revealed, yet again, the gap between Labour’s metropolitan, progressive, pro-European activists and MPs and the old-fashioned working-class voters upon whom it has traditionally relied.
Farage has always maintained that leaving the European Union is his one great goal in politics — the sole purpose of the party he joined as a founding member in 1993, and which he has led, on and off, since 2006. But it is hard to see him tearing up his UKIP membership card and returning to the Tories — or, indeed, the Tories accepting him.
By winning the referendum, Farage has reshaped his country in his own image. His is the face of Brexit — the cause of Britain’s departure from the European Union, and very possibly of Scotland’s departure from Britain in turn. Whatever the temptations of the quiet life, he will surely be driven to play an equally prominent role in determining what the independent nation of his dreams will actually look like.
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