"Farage is a Del Boy who wants to get somewhere".
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"I hope and pray he doesn’t get elected": Ukip founder Alan Sked on Nigel Farage

James Nickerson meets Alan Sked, the man who created Ukip.

Professor Alan Sked, once-upon-a-time founder of Ukip, has strong views on the current state of the party. “They go to Europe, they don’t do anything, they take the money and as far as I can tell it’s all a fraud.”

This is not just one scorned man’s account of the party he created. “Two Ukip MEPs have been done for corruption and fraud and been put in jail, and a third has also been charged . . . Not one Ukip MEP turned up for the debate on standards of English required by foreign doctors in the NHS, something they are always saying kills people because the doctors do not understand English.”

Not that when Sked led the party he was a fan of the European Parliament; between 1991 and 1997, when he ran the party, they would not send candidates there. “We didn’t recognise the legitimacy of the European parliament: we’d only send MPs to Westminster. There was no reason to go there and just say ‘no, no, no, no’ to absolutely everything. And if we were forced to go we would have given our salaries to the NHS.”

Robert Smith, a Ukip founding father who is Parliamentary Candidate for Camborne & Redruth, has a respectfully different view: “The anti-European movement, when it started, needed someone like Alan Sked, who was clear-sighted enough to say we need a party that goes across all parties, which has as its raison d'être that we leave the European Union. We would have got nowhere without Alan and I congratulate him for that.”

But Smith adds: “Afterwards there was a series of fallings out and people wanted to be more politically astute than Alan. We needed to change our policy on the European Union after facing headlines stating ‘And if you want a party that won’t even go to the European Union Vote for Ukip’.”

It is not just this that has changed, Sked tells me as he points to the membership form he created. It lies among the kind of heap of files you would expect to find in the office of a history lecturer. In the years that he led the party it was a mainstream-normal-centre-of-the-road-liberal party, he says. “Our membership form said we had no prejudices against foreigners or lawful minorities of any kind at all, and we had an array of policies.”

“We had policies on housing, the welfare state, defence, crime, economics, fiscal policy. You name it. The one policy area we didn’t have a policy was immigration, because it didn’t dawn on me that immigration was a problem. Now he’s obsessed with immigration, that silly bugger Farage.”

This was not how the academic envisaged Ukip. In fact, it was originally named the Anti-Federalist League in 1991 after the Anti-Corn Law league of the 1840s that had converted Sir Robert Pell from protection to free trade and changed the history of Britain. “Unfortunately, not everyone had this historical consciousness, people associating the name with fascist leagues in France in the 1930s. This wasn’t acceptable.”

Still, for Sked, a decade of meeting European politicians, academics and bureaucrats led him to the conclusion that the EU was a burden on British finances, undemocratic and corrupt, views he still holds. This is why in 2013 he set up New Deal, a political party designed to do to Labour what Ukip has done to the Tories. While the party has ceased to exist, the history professor still vigorously campaigns for Britain to leave the EU.

“It worries me greatly, however, that Farage and UKIP could bring down the whole out campaign if there were to be a referendum. That’s why I keep criticising them and hoping they won’t get anywhere in the election because they have become so toxic,” Sked explains as he reclines in his chair. “I saw a poll that put Ukip as Britain’s most toxic brand, with the conservatives second and Marmite third. I think Farage and Ukip are seen as so prejudiced and so racist that they would completely contaminate the whole campaign, which is my great fear.”

A lot seems to ride, in Sked’s view, on how the media decide who the spokespeople for the Out campaign should be. “If the press takes an arbitrary decision that Farage is the spokesperson for the Out campaign over people like myself or Nigel Lawson, and we get side-lined, then our movement could be in trouble. The media treats him like a darling, but he’s got no mind: he’s a plank. But at least the media often build them up to destroy them.”

But Sked thinks Farage has got this kind of ‘I’m the guy in the pub with a fag and a pint’ thing going on and that is why when Ukip does shocking things nobody seems to care. Sked believes the party are trying to get what he calls the obvious loonies out, “but every week someone crawls out of the woodworks saying something like ‘African immigrants are scroungers’ or something else vile. They are against gay marriage and want to ban the burka: they say they’re a libertarian party but they’re just prejudice to the nth degree.”

For Smith, however, racial prejudice exists in every political party; “I’m not denying it exists in Ukip at all. What we do, though, is kick members out if we find out. The people I work with are not racially prejudiced; but I don't deny that there are people with these prejudices in Ukip, just as there are in every the Labour and Tory party. We’re not all swivel-headed lunatics.”

Yet, a few weeks ago Farage made a statement about how he wanted to scrap legislation that protected against discrimination at work. He says he did not mention race at all in the interview, but for Sked “it demonstrates Farage's and Ukip's obsession with race and however the statement is worded it constitutes a dog whistle signal to all racists in Britain that Ukip is the party for them. Which other party leader would play the race card in such a way during an election? Just as in 2010 when the party's flagship policy was to ban the burka, yet again Ukip is trying to turn the election debate from serious issues concerning the economy to the divisive one of race.”

The party got nowhere until 2010, when it became the default protest party of British politics when the Liberal Democrats entered coalition with the Conservatives. Voting Ukip in the 2015 General Election, however, will result in one thing for sure, thinks Sked: a raucous bunch of populists in Westminster who would be agitating for a repeal of the 1972 Accession Treaty, or a referendum, and they would team up with the Tory Eurosceptics to make sure any renegotiation Cameron made with Europe was not good enough – which is probably what will happen anyway.

Forget the party for a second though, Sked instructs me. “It’s a one man band and there’s a huge rumour in Ukip that Farage is desperate to get a peerage and he’ll do a deal with the Tories just to get to the Lords. What he really wants is social respectability. He’s a Del Boy who wants to get somewhere.”

Sked looks worried. “I hope and pray he doesn’t get elected.” He’s been informed by Craig MacKinlay, a previous Ukip candidate who is running against Farage in South Thanet, that the Tories are slight ahead, but it’s going to be close. “Nonetheless if Farage doesn’t get in, even he says that is a car crash”.

The academic is hoping for more than that; he hopes they get no seats at all. “They might end up just getting one, and I don’t think it will be Farage, I think it will be Carswell in Clacton. Current opinion polls give Ukip 9 per cent, and that’s not enough to get any seats, let alone hold the balance of power.”

Photo: Getty
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Boris Johnson is out of control, but Theresa May is too weak to punish him

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less.

Only younger Tory MPs asked last weekend: “Why did Boris do it?” Why did he write a 4,000-word essay on his demands for Brexit, just six days before Theresa May would make a definitive speech on the government’s plans? The older ones knew why: he hadn’t been the centre of attention for a while and wanted to remind people of his existence and that he remained in the game. A charitable fringe of pro-Brexit MPs thought he did it because he is a sincere Leaver, motivated by a desire to ensure the democratically expressed will of the British people is discharged. However, theirs was not a view widely shared.

Others thought they could trace the motivation for Johnson’s intervention back to the events of June 2016. “The reputation of Vote Leave at the moment is a pile of shit,” one told me, referring to the campaign whose figurehead Johnson had been. The metaphor became even more pungent: “Going back to the £350m is like a dog returning to his vomit.” The figure, plastered on Vote Leave’s battle bus, was the amount Johnson and his friends claimed would be available post-Brexit to spend weekly on the NHS. It was quickly rubbished, with Nigel Farage’s Leave.EU campaign dismissing it outright. It was a gross, not a net, figure; it included the EU rebate, which ceases to exist when our contributions stop. David Norgrove, head of the UK Statistics Authority, has repudiated the assertion; and there are many other institutions, such as our tertiary education sector, that will lose EU money and expect the government to make it up. That Johnson should mention this fantasy figure in his article has bemused even some of that dwindling band of MPs who still see him as a possible future leader.

Although the piece was in Johnson’s familiar idiom, others detected in it the influence of Vote Leave’s former director, Dominic Cummings. Further evidence came in a bout of aggressive tweeting from Cummings after the pack turned on Johnson. An MP who worked with Vote Leave told me, “Cummings has returned. He is a narcissist. If he can’t get his own way, then he prefers to destroy: that was how he operated all through the campaign.”

Cummings, a former aide to Michael Gove, is like Johnson a publicity addict: both thirst to see their names in the media. He disappeared from view after Gove’s failed leadership bid, when Gove had to promise supporters that Cummings would not work in Downing Street if he won, so toxic was Cummings’s reputation after Vote Leave. Gove was quoted as supporting Johnson’s “vision”, a further sign of Cummings’s involvement. Within 24 hours, Gove’s friends denied that he supported any such thing but then, as Cummings went into action, Gove confirmed his backing for Johnson.

Johnson’s intervention did not grate with everybody. Some Brexiteer Tories, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, felt that after a party debate dominated by ministers favouring a Brexit that looks like continued membership of the EU by other means – notably Philip Hammond – it was time the Foreign Secretary spoke out for something representing a cleaner break. Some also felt that, given his office, he had a right to have a public say on the matter, after months in which May had done her best to ignore him.

Her weary “Boris is Boris” remark after his intervention suggests she couldn’t care less, and suggestions he might resign are unlikely to concern her unduly. His remarks were not against party policy, but MPs trusted by Downing Street were at pains to stress that his views would have no effect on the content of the Prime Minister’s Brexit speech, for there had “never been any chance of Theresa going off-piste”.

Johnson’s intervention was, however, unhelpful to him and to May. Colleagues saw it as the consequence of his having spent the summer steaming with frustration because he had lost ownership of the Brexit issue. He has also, according to friends, developed a thinner skin of late, and feels wounded by frequent attacks on him in the media pointing out his disengagement, his laziness, his ambition and his generally poor impression of a foreign secretary. For so long the goût du choix of many younger colleagues, he now finds they take him no more seriously than most of his older ones do. He once took for granted that in a leadership contest MPs would choose him as one of the two candidates for a plebiscite of the membership; now few think that likely.

Too many colleagues have taken the Telegraph article as further proof of his inability to be a team player, and of his unfitness for higher office – which was why Gove dropped him last year. Referring to Johnson’s time as mayor of London, a colleague says: “He was a good chairman, when he had seven or eight deputy mayors. But he can’t do what a minister is supposed to do, which is to grasp a policy and deliver it.” Another highlights his skewed sense of priorities and the lack of a deft political touch. “Isn’t it astonishing that just as he should be sorting out all consular and diplomatic help for our people in the West Indies after the hurricane, he finds time to write a 4,000-word newspaper article? As usual, it’s not about what’s good for the country. It’s what he thinks is good for him.”

Yet, as Ken Clarke swiftly pointed out, Boris Johnson has shown that however much he annoys May, she is too damaged and vulnerable to sack him. When Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, started mocking him as a “back-seat driver”, May was seen to be presiding over a cabinet whose most senior members were squabbling. Johnson’s self-indulgence also meant that the expectation surrounding May’s Florence speech, already considerable as she struggled to rebuild her credibility and that of her Brexit policy, became even harder to satisfy. 

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left