Nigel Farage in London following the reversal of his resignation. Photo: LEON NEAL/AFP/Getty Images
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Seven times a loser: what's next for Nigel Farage and Ukip?

Like Clegg on tuition fees, Farage now risks being mocked for a broken promise.

“On your bike, Nigel,” the hecklers mocked. It was not meant to end this way for the Ukip leader. Standing in South Thanet, Nigel Farage expected finally to become an MP ­after six failed attempts.

When his rejection by the electorate was made official, he gave a terse speech, stressing his “relief” at the result. He then marched out of the count before the other losing candidates had made their speeches. Defeat with dignity this was not.

South Thanet, a sprawling coastal constituency in Kent with a large population of relatively low-skilled workers and high anxiety about immigration (although white Britons account for 90 per cent of its population), had seemed an ideal fit for Ukip. The abandoned shops in the centre of Ramsgate, the heart of the seat, give the impression of a town whose people have been left behind, even if Broadstairs and Sandwich, elsewhere in the constituency, are more affluent. A series of financial scandals at the local council rendered Thanet more susceptible to Ukip’s brand of anti-politics.

So, when Farage announced last year that he would stand in South Thanet, the popular assumption, underpinned by constituency polling, was that he would win. Indeed, two months before the election that was the view shared by the Conservatives. Sensing that the local branch was struggling, they sent Nick Timothy, chief of staff to Theresa May, who had worked on three by-election victories before the 2010 election, to live and work full-time in Ramsgate. The Tories sensed that to beat Farage they first needed to beat Labour, to prove that only they could stop Ukip winning. “The person that was going to win the election was the person who could unite the anti-Farage vote,” said Will Scobie, Labour’s losing candidate.

In their campaign leaflets the Tories, who gained the seat in 2010 from Labour, described the contest as a two-way battle between themselves and Ukip, and cultivated a few prominent local Labour figures who advocated voting tactically to stop Farage. “We were seen as the lesser of two evils with people who identified as centre-left,” a Tory campaign insider told me.

In the final push, the Conservatives ­focused on two main strategies. Farage was branded the “absentee candidate”, who didn’t care about the area and wouldn’t work hard as a local MP. The Tories championed the local links of their candidate, Craig Mackinlay, who walked 90 miles in the constituency in the last week before the vote. And the Tories vowed not to attempt to “out-Ukip” Farage. Though Mackinlay was a former deputy leader of Ukip and thus well disposed to winning over “soft Kippers” on the doorstep, the party avoided mention of Europe or immigration in its literature, fearing this would legitimise Ukip’s policy platform while alienating tactical voters. The focus was on the economy, jobs and local issues such as regenerating Ramsgate.

The Tories were also helped by fears of the SNP exerting power in a coalition, which resonated with patriotic voters inclined to vote Ukip. This is one explanation why many voters split their ticket on election day: although Farage polled only 32 per cent, compared to Mackinlay’s 38 per cent (and Scobie’s 24 per cent), locally Ukip won a majority on Thanet District Council.

Farage’s polarising nature may have repelled as many as he attracted to him. As Ukip sent money, foot soldiers and expertise to South Thanet, efforts mounted to prevent Farage from winning. Stand Up to Ukip hosted numerous events in the seat and anti-Ukip badges were visible on polling day in Ramsgate. There is an important lesson for the imminent EU referendum, as some who advocate leaving concede: Farage risks being as toxic as Nick Clegg was in the AV referendum four years ago.

Like Clegg on tuition fees, Farage now risks being mocked for a broken promise. “It is frankly just not credible for me to continue to lead the party without a Westminster seat,” he wrote in his memoir The Purple Revolution, published two months ago. Farage did resign but 72 hours later gave in to what Ukip’s chairman called “overwhelming evidence that the Ukip membership did not want Nigel to go”.

South Thanet wasn’t the only Ukip disappointment on election night. The party failed in other target seats such as Thurrock, Castle Point, and Boston and Skegness, leaving the Tory defector Douglas Carswell as its sole MP. The defeat of Mark Reckless makes future defections to Ukip less likely.

As Ukip painfully learned, first-past-the-post is ruthless to insurgent parties. Yet 3.8 million people voted for it on 7 May, 2.4 million more than backed the SNP. Ukip came
second in 120 seats and hurt Labour at least as much as the Tories. Across the north-east, north-west and Yorkshire, once considered Labour’s unbreachable northern heartlands, Ukip averaged 12.5 per cent in seats that were Tory-held before the election but 16.9 per cent in Labour constituencies: indeed, it was the Ukip surge that was decisive in defeating Ed Balls. Core Labour voters have proved susceptible to Ukip’s message, giving the party a base from which to launch a renewed assault on Labour at the next election: the “2020 strategy”.

It might not be as simple as that. The ­aftermath of the EU referendum will pose a fundamental challenge to the party. Tensions will simmer between blue and red Ukip – those who believe its future lies in peeling off shire Tories and those more focused on the northern working class. And eventually Ukip will need to move on from Farage who, for all that he has brought to the party, is an unparalleled loser in Westminster elections. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 14 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory triumph

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The triumph of Misbah-ul-Haq, the quiet grafter

How Misbah redeemed Pakistani cricket.

It was an incongruous sight: the entire Pakistani cricket team doing press-ups on the revered pitch at Lord’s, led by its captain, Misbah-ul-Haq. This unusual celebration marked not merely a Test match victory over England on Sunday but something greater: the rehabilitation of Pakistani cricket.

Seven years earlier, the Sri Lankan team bus was en route to the cricket stadium in Lahore for the third day of a Test match against Pakistan when it was attacked by Islamist militants. Gunfire killed six police officers and a driver; several Sri Lankan cricketers were also injured. That was the last Test match played in Pakistan, which, despite protestations, opponents consider too dangerous to visit.

A year later, Pakistan toured England for a Test series. The News of the World alleged that in the final match at Lord’s three Pakistani cricketers had conspired to bowl no-balls in exchange for money. All three received bans of five years or more for corruption. The entire squad was lampooned; police had to shield its members from abuse as they arrived home.

Misbah was on the periphery of all of this. Aged 36 at the time, he was dropped from the squad before the English tour and seemed unlikely to play international cricket again. But the turbulence engulfing Pakistani cricket forced the selectors to reassess. Not only was Misbah recalled but he was made captain. “You have to ask yourself,” he later said: “‘Have I been the captain because they supported me, or because they had no alternatives?’”

Pakistani cricket prizes and mythologises teenage talent plucked from obscurity and brought into the international side. During his decade as captain, Imran Khan picked 11 teenagers to make their debuts, often simply on the basis of being wowed by their performance in the nets. Misbah shows that another way is possible. He grew up in Mianwali, a city that was so remote that: “The culture there wasn’t such that you thought about playing for Pakistan.”

At the behest of his parents, he devoted his early twenties not to his promising batting but to gaining an MBA. Only at 24 did he make his first-class debut, strikingly late in an age when professional sportsmen are expected to dedicate all their energy to the game from their teenage years.

Pakistani cricket has always been “a little blip of chaos to the straight lines of order”, Osman Samiuddin writes in The Unquiet Ones. Misbah has created order out of chaos. He is unflappable and methodical, both as a captain and as a batsman. His mood seems impervious to results. More than anything, he is resilient.

He has led Pakistan to 21 Test victories – seven more than any other captain. He has done this with a bowling attack ravaged by the 2010 corruption scandal and without playing a single match at home. Because of security concerns, Pakistan now play in the United Arab Emirates, sometimes in front of fewer than a hundred supporters.

Misbah has developed a team that marries professionalism with the self-expression and flair for which his country’s cricket is renowned. And he has scored runs – lots of them. Over his 43 Tests as captain, he has averaged at 56.68. Few have been so empowered by responsibility, or as selfless. He often fields at short leg, the most dangerous position in the game and one usually reserved for the team’s junior player.

Misbah has retained his capacity to surprise. As a batsman, he has a reputation for stoic defence. Yet, in November 2014 he reached a century against Australia in just 56 balls, equalling the previous record for the fastest ever Test innings, held by Viv Richards. The tuk-tuk had become a Ferrari.

Late in 2015, Misbah tried to retire. He was 41 and had helped to keep Pakistani cricket alive during some of its darkest days. But the selectors pressured him to stay on, arguing that the team would need him during its arduous tours to England and Australia.

They were right. His crowning glory was still to come. The team arrived in England following weeks of training with the national army in Abbottabad. “The army people are not getting much salaries, but for this flag and for the Pakistani nation, they want to sacrifice their lives,” Misbah said. “That’s a big motivation for all of us. Everyone is really putting effort in for that flag and the nation.”

Now 42, almost a decade older than any cricketer in England’s side, Misbah fulfilled a lifetime’s ambition by playing in a Test match at Lord’s. In Pakistan’s first innings, he scored a century and celebrated with push-ups on the outfield, in homage to the army’s fitness regime and those who had had the temerity to mock his age.

When Pakistan secured victory a little after 6pm on the fourth evening of the game, the entire team imitated the captain’s push-ups, then saluted the national flag. The applause for them reverberated far beyond St John’s Wood.

“It’s been a remarkable turnaround after the 2010 incident,” Misbah-ul-Haq said, ever undemonstrative.

He would never say as much, but he has done more than anyone else to lead Pakistan back to glory. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt