Nigel Farage is touring the working men’s clubs of northern England, like a comedian in disgrace.
I meet the Brexit Party leader in the bowels of the Bentinck Colliery Miners Welfare Social Club, on the outskirts of Kirkby-in-Ashfield. We are deep in the Nottinghamshire coalfield, where Farage has chosen to launch what he promises will be his last general election campaign. The bar around us is dimly lit and empty but for his security detail. He slouches, almost bent double, on a table in tweed and mustard cords, brogues dangling a couple of feet above the floor.
Farage’s day – the first of his tour of Labour constituencies which voted to Leave in 2016 – has been long. It started in a boxing club in Bolsover: Dennis Skinner country, over the border in Derbyshire (Labour majority: 5,288). A walkabout in Mansfield followed (Conservative majority: 1,057). Now, in Ashfield (Labour majority: 441), he waits to address his paying faithful (£2.50 each). They are packed patiently in an upstairs room, listening to a considered speech on constitutional reform from Brexit Party chairman Richard Tice.
Yet they are really here to see Farage, who, for all the effervescence of the day’s photo opportunities, now looks exhausted. His party is divided, its polling numbers on the slide. In Westminster, Tory Brexiteers accuse him of conspiring to hand the general election to Remainers. In the back bar of the Bentinck, it is cold and dark. Farage, who has declined to make an eighth unsuccessful attempt to become an MP, is pintless. He can’t really be enjoying this, can he? The question seems to flick a switch. He breaks out of glum repose and out comes the feline grin. “Oh, I always have fun,” he says, with a throaty laugh. “So far today I’ve had forced upon me lunch, fish and chips, cake, beers…” His fingers waggle illustratively.
But does he really want to be here? “I suppose I’m a little bit surprised that I’m having to do it, when it should all be done and dusted by now. I shouldn’t even be involved, really. But I do think it’s important that we do it. I come to places like this to remind people of the sheer extent to which Labour have broken their promises.”
Upstairs, genuine locals are hard to come by. Many have driven upwards of 50 miles to spend their Tuesday evening in Farage’s company. Others are regulars, trailing him from draughty hall to draughty hall, pit town to faded seaside resort.
Farage’s spiel, which he later rehashes on stage upstairs, is familiar. “I want to point out that Boris’s deal is just not Brexit. It’s a Remainer’s Brexit. It’s half-in, half-out, half-out, half-in, never-neverland. Unless the Tories get tough and say they want to change things. Which, at the moment, they’re not doing!”
He explains his defiance: “The reason for being here is to say to people: well, in a general election, you deserve to have a choice – and that’s important. So, clearly, there are four distinct courses here on this menu, and we’re going to provide one.”
Clearly, there are many things Farage would rather be doing – all of them better-paid than politics. Once this is over, he hopes to campaign on other issues – the constitution, educational reform – and head to America. “I want to be a commentator. I want to broadcast. I want to write. I want to lecture. Clearly, current affairs is in my lifeblood. But career politics isn’t. It’s not my ambition. I’ve always, always, always tried to use my MEP position, or party leader position, as a means of shifting opinion and moving things. I’ve had some success at that. Some failures too.
“But do I want to be sitting in the House of Commons in 15 years’ time?” He cocks an eyebrow. “Like… not.” None of the biggest influencers on the American right, he contends, are “on Capitol Hill. More of them are on telly, their radio shows, their blogs, podcasts, all the rest of it. I see myself more in that role, to be honest. And hopping back and forth across the pond.”
Later, parts of his address to the rapturous crowd upstairs sound almost like a concession speech. “Changing the British political system with its power, its patronage, and its money is no easy thing,” he says. Perhaps, one can’t help but think, that’s why he’s leaving the stage.
For Farage, the complaints of Conservative Eurosceptics are cutting no ice. “Could I, in good conscience, after 25 years of fighting for this, and having helped, personally, to move a few hills, could I stand aside and let this thing be sold out without standing up and saying it’s wrong? I couldn’t do that.”
But what of the consequences? In Mansfield, three or so miles away, Conservative MP Ben Bradley worries what a Brexit Party surge might do to his slender majority over a Labour Party promising a second referendum. Here in Ashfield, it could dash Tory hopes of victory. These are the seats that will give Boris Johnson his majority. Or, if his worst fears about Farage are realised, deny him it.
Yet Farage does a decent job of at least sounding unrepentant. “I would respond to this split-the-vote thing by saying two things, really,” he sighs. “The first is that you can’t split the Brexit vote if there’s only one real Brexit choice!”
He chuckles incredulously. “The second thing, of course, is that we’re straight back to – for me, in my head – the 2015 general election. I led Ukip, and I faced exactly the same questions from exactly the same people, and exactly the same criticism in the Tory press that I’ve been getting in the last three or four days. And, of course, on the night of the result, they were all wrong. Why?”
The answer, given our location, is obvious. “Because the Ukip four million did far more damage to the Labour Party than it did to the Tory party… I think right now the most vulnerable vote to the Brexit Party is the Labour Leave vote. Absolutely. Are there Conservatives going to vote for us? Of course there are. If confidence in Boris and his so-called deal collapses, then even more Tories will come. But right now, I think it’s much easier for Labour Leavers to vote for us.”
Some Tories wholeheartedly agree with him, even if academic studies don’t. Others, however, are convinced that Farage can only do them harm. If he is wrong, then the result could be a haphazard parliamentary coalition capable of mustering a majority for a second referendum – or worse. Nigel Farage’s final act in British politics would have been to snatch defeat from the jaws of the victory he has coveted for nearly three decades – for no reason, his detractors within and without the Brexit Party say, other than his own vanity.
He is haughtily, impatiently dismissive of the likes of Steve Baker, the European Research Group chairman who once advocated a pact with Farage. He has since concluded any cooperation would be unworkable, tweeting daily entreaties for Farage’s surrender. “It’s pathetic. I saw it all at Maastricht. I saw the same game played over Maastricht: the rebels, up all night, filibustering, as they were then allowed to do in the House of Commons, and then in the end they all voted for it.
“It’s the same with this lot. And I’m astonished by it. I’m astonished by Boris. I’m astonished by Jacob [Rees-Mogg]. I’m astonished by so many of them.”
Behind the bluster is an open door. Farage drops his voice to a conspiratorial stage whisper. “It’s interesting, isn’t it? Here we are, sitting here on 5 November, nominations close on 14 November. Things may move. I don’t know any more than you do. Things can change in the next nine or ten days. I don’t think they really thought we were serious until they saw our candidates, standing up cheering in that hall in Westminster yesterday.
“The point about general elections is that you press the reset button. Don’t tell me it’s a Remainer parliament, because we haven’t got a parliament. This is a chance to change that. I don’t buy that the Tories can’t shift their stance or policy because we’re moving into an election, and that’s the argument I’ve been pushing hard over the past week or so.”
Rather than peering over the ledge and into oblivion, he has his foot on the top rung of a ladder – ready to climb down. Provided, of course, his big condition is met: a commitment to no-deal in the Conservative manifesto.
The Prime Minister, Farage insists, is “completely capable of doing a 180 on where he is now. I think the logic of what I’m saying in that at a general election you can press the reset button… otherwise, why have elections? It’s quite a powerful argument.”
It isn’t an argument that’s convincing Johnson. Indeed, the only certainty in this election campaign appears to be that the Tories will persist in ignoring it. What then? If the worst happens, will Farage campaign to save Brexit – any Brexit – in a second referendum? Were Johnson’s deal or anything softer pitted against Remain, Farage could only foresee one winner. “Remain wins every time.” Back goes his head. “Every time. Every time! I wouldn’t vote. I wouldn’t vote! What’s the point?”
Would Farage encourage his fans, like the hundred or so waiting in the room above us, to boycott the poll? He exhales wearily. “I just think I’d head for the hills. This isn’t Brexit. It’s never going to be Brexit, going down this route.”
One cannot help but wonder if Farage has made his disappointment, and that of the voters he claims to represent, inevitable. I ask him to consider one of his heroes: Enoch Powell. Unlike Powell, who implored his followers to vote Labour in an intervention that was widely credited with delivering Harold Wilson victory in February 1974, Farage is endorsing nobody but himself. But might his campaign have the same effect?
“I hadn’t really thought about that,” he says. He recalls the moment Powell took to a stage in Shipley, West Yorkshire, and told an audience of anti-Common Market activists to vote for Wilson’s Labour and its promised referendum – only to be accused of treachery by a heckler. “It’s the famous ‘Judas!’, isn’t it? ‘Judas was paid…’” Arms outstretched, he mimics Powell’s nasal West Midlands brogue. “I am making a sacrifice!”
“I hadn’t thought of it in quite that way. Although, I don’t think Powell ever regretted it.”
He pauses. “I don’t think Powell ever regretted it because Heath really had broken his 1970 manifesto promise, which was to enter the European Economic Community with the wholehearted consent of the British people, which clearly hadn’t been given. So Powell never regretted it for one moment.”
He gazes across the room. Ozzy Osborne stares back from a battered canvas. “No, I shan’t regret this at all.”