Nigel Farage is back! Actually, that’s not right: “back” implies he ever went away, and the world isn’t that kind. So I need a different opening line. I could go with “Nigel Farage is coming for the nation’s mothers” – I don’t want to worry you but he is – but that is, at best, a side issue. For the moment, I shall go with “Nigel Farage is once again extremely keen for us to pay attention to the existence of Nigel Farage.” It isn’t as pithy, but it does have the advantage of being true.
The main thing the former Ukip leader wants us to pay attention to at this precise moment is his demand for a referendum on the government’s commitment to reach net zero by 2050. At first glance, this feels a lot like the Brexit playbook all over again: campaigning for Britain to “take back control of our energy policies and prices”; appealing to voters who feel both physically and politically a long way away from Westminster, in an attempt to build a majority for a reactionary policy platform. There’s even a Net Zero Scrutiny Group of right-wing Tory MPs to support the campaign, and would you look at that – Steve Baker’s involved.
But there are some crucial differences. For one thing, there are a significant number of enthusiastic environmentalists in both the electorate and the Conservative Party, in a way that there were not a significant number of pro-Europeans. It’s not clear how easy it will be to make a fringe position the new normal.
There’s also quite a big practical difference between the two debates. What Brexit meant – beyond Brexit – has turned out to be a bit hazy, but the basic question of whether Britain should be in the EU remains both binary and comprehensible. Despite superficial similarities, the net zero debate isn’t like that. To quote GB News’s Tom Harwood, hardly a remoaning liberal, if Britain held a referendum and voted against net zero, “does this mean that when technological progress accidentally gets us to net zero by 2050 anyway, the government would have to intervene to pump out more CO2 to ensure we weren’t carbon neutral?”
Farage’s unscheduled reappearance raises a question: what does he actually want? If it was as simple as power he would have joined the Tories rather than throwing rocks at them for 20 years. If it was that parliamentary seat he so clearly longs for, he’d have stuck with the Brexit Party and spent his time banging on about betrayal, rather than starting again from scratch. Is he just a puppet, dancing to an agenda decided by someone else? (Hmm, whose geopolitical interest is best served by weakening the EU and leaving Britain dependent on fossil fuels?) What does he want?
Here’s a theory. All Nigel Farage wants is two things that many of us, in our own, varied and messed-up ways, want: money and attention. That would certainly fit with the fact that he spent much of the pandemic sat in his house, charging £75 a pop for personalised videos on Cameo, which seemed both comic and tragic in equal measure (“Ho ho ho, doesn’t he realise he’s just wished the IRA luck?”), until someone did the maths on his earnings and suddenly the joke was on us. It would fit, too, with – I did warn you this was coming – his pimping his videos on his new platform, the upsettingly named Thrillz, as a potential mother’s day present. “It is universally well known that mums have a thing for me,” he tweeted in what we can only hope is a self-aware mangling of Austen. “Why not give her a gift she can cherish forever?” Because I don’t want to be told I’m adopted, Nigel, that’s why.
If all Farage wants is attention, can’t we find a way to give it to him that neither grosses millions of people out nor brings about the end of the world? A way that doesn’t involve sharing his terrible views, even as we try to refute them? Perhaps all of us could promise to think about him for two minutes a day. Or perhaps we could come up with a rota, to leave our muted televisions tuned to his show on GB News so that he gets the ratings boost his ego requires while minimising the risk that we actually hear his views.
Or perhaps we could agree to share his tweets if, and only if, they’re entirely devoid of political content. After all, if Farage discovers the only way he gets the attention he so clearly craves is to tweet innocuous things about disappointing breakfast cereals or uncomfortable shoes, can his transformation into a sort of pinstriped Adrian Chiles be far behind?
There must be a thousand ways of providing the man with attention, without allowing him to put the planet at risk. Look, I don’t want to do this either: I’d rather he just went away. But if it’s this or screwing up the country again with yet another stupid referendum, then I am willing, against my better judgment, to acknowledge the existence of Nigel Farage. Who’s with me?
[See also: How Nigel Farage became king of the trolls]