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“I’ve done more than anyone else to defeat the far right in Britain”

Nigel Farage calls himself the “Billy Graham” of politics and believes his right English populism can destroy the Conservatives.

By Jason Cowley

The left, liberals and mainstream Conservatives loathe Nigel Farage. The feeling is mutual. Rishi Sunak fears him and his destructive potential and must understand now that the process of Brexit has broken his party. Farage is adept at exploiting weakness and vulnerability: political, institutional. He is not a conservative: he is a reactionary. He does not have a theory of the state. His aim is not to conserve but to disrupt and destroy the existing political order and the two-party system. Sunak is merely his latest victim.

In 2006 David Cameron described Ukip voters as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”. In time they had their revenge on him, and many now support Reform: if anything, there are many more supporters of Farage today than there were when Cameron abruptly resigned as prime minister in 2016.

At the 2015 general election, nearly 4 million people voted for Ukip; Farage’s aides hope that as many as 6 million could vote for Reform this time. If Reform under the first-past-the-post system ends up with only a few MPs, or perhaps just one, Farage, Labour, which opposes electoral reform, would be confronted with a serious democratic deficit. “If I’d had six months of this, this would be very different,” Farage told me. “But I didn’t have six months. But I decided in the end, after all the prevarication, that I had enough time to at least make a good start, and we’re making a good start. There is momentum out there, and we are the subject of conversation.”

Many have denounced Farage as a post- or proto-fascist, but that is to misunderstand the style of his peculiarly English populism: part TV game-show host, part charismatic secular preacher. He’s even started calling himself “the political Billy Graham”.

“I’ve got this new technique, you see,” he said. “At the end of the meetings, I say, ‘Right, do you agree with me?’ And not everyone does, because a lot have come along and they’re open-minded, and that’s right, and some don’t like it and you get the odd shout – that’s fine. ‘Do you agree with me?’ I say. ‘Well, you agreeing with me is useless. I don’t want you just to agree with me. Do you think I can do this on my own? Do you think I can do this without you? I want you to raise your arms if you’re going to commit.’ They raise their arms, I say, ‘That’s it. Well, I made a promise to you, you have now all made a promise’ – this is what I call the Billy Graham.”

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Farage once said to me: “If you think I am bad enough imagine what comes after me.” What is it he imagines might come after him? What are the dark forces he holds in check by going as far as he can in his anti-immigration rhetoric – and in comments about the rise of separatist Islamist politics in Britain – without going as far as those parties on the European continent which share a family resemblance with Reform, such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally, the Sweden Democrats, Alternative for Germany, or Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party? When I asked about these parties and their similarities to Reform, Farage said: “-ish”. But he is impressed by Giorgia Meloni, the post-fascist prime minister of Italy. “Meloni’s done a very good job. She’s got control, she’s disappointed some of her more radical supporters, but you know what she’s done? By becoming a stable prime minister, she’s actually moved the needle on a variety of issues in Italy and made them respectable. I see her as being quite an interesting ally, quite pragmatic and sensible.”

Farage believes, as he put it to me, that he’s done more than anyone else to defeat the far right in this country. “Look,” he says, “when they got a million votes in the [2009] European elections, the BNP were the insurgent force of British politics; Ukip was a relative tiddler. Who destroyed the BNP? Was it [the former Labour minister] Peter Hain saying boycott them, or was it me taking them on? Paul Nuttall and I took on the BNP vote, directly, and we said, ‘Look, if you’re voting BNP because of deep frustration about what’s happening in your communities, you don’t need to vote for an organisation that is overtly hostile to others. We share your concerns but we’re not hostile, on a personal, human level.’ Knocked the guts out of them. No one did more to beat the far right in this country than me. If I wasn’t here, somebody with a bit more brain than Nick Griffin would emerge.”

Gerard Batten, in alliance with Tommy Robinson, formerly of the English Defence League, attempted to revive Ukip, from 2018-19, and moved the party to the neo-fascist right. “Batten is a charmless idiot,” Farage cut in.

He’s never met Robinson. “I’ve never wanted to,” he said, and mentions his various prison sentences. “Look… it’s not all a stitch-up, is it? But it could be a Tommy. Who knows what it could be? But all the while that I’m here, that figure’s not going to come.”

Farage doesn’t rule out attempting to take control of the Conservative Party after the election. “Preston Manning did that in Canada. We’ll have to see, it depends on what happens in the next 11, 12 days. If we maintain this momentum, then we could be in a very interesting position.”

Is there anyone he could work with on the Tory benches?

“Well, there are individuals, obviously, but not the party itself, no. I don’t see any prospect of that at all. They’ve destroyed themselves. If I’d gone fishing for the month in the Bahamas – and it was tempting, you know! – but if I’d done that, they still would have been wiped out. This is a breach of trust on an historic level. To have achieved an 80-seat majority and to have delivered on an agenda that was almost the opposite to what the expectant voters thought they were going to get, and frankly, they deserve all that’s coming to them.”

He is scathing about Boris Johnson and blames him most for creating the conditions of a collapse of trust in the Conservatives.

“He got pretty much everything wrong. I mean, the levels at which they set the entry requirements to come to the UK from the whole world… I said that day, ‘This means the numbers will go through the roof.’ It was so obvious. He didn’t care. Wasn’t bothered about that. The lunatic net zero agenda. I mean, think of that speech: ‘Build back beaver.’ Quite astonishing that a British prime minister literally wanted to take out of production 30 per cent of British agricultural land! The [Covid] lockdowns. ‘Oh, no, Boris is a libertarian.’ Really?”

It’s not just the Conservatives who have misread Faragism, however. The left struggles to understand what he has unlocked and channels as he leads the revolt of his “people’s army”, in whatever form it takes: Ukip, the Brexit Party and now Reform, the non-party party with its multitude of cranks standing as candidates at the election.

The Times has been investigating the background of many Reform candidates and revealing their repellent views. Of Reform candidates, Farage accepts that problems with them were “written in” as soon as he returned. “I have no idea who they are! I’ve never met any of them. We’re a start-up, of course we’re going to have – we’re a start-up! When he called the election Sunak knew that Reform was in no state to fight any election. It wasn’t Ukip: I mean, Ukip had a structure, an organically built structure; Reform didn’t have any of that. He calls the election, and I think, ‘Oh, well, damn and blast, I can’t do it. How do we build the structure, how do we raise the money, how do we find the staff we’re going to need, how do I fight a constituency and travel round the country?’ So for logical reasons, I thought, ‘No, I can’t do it.’ Those reasons, by the way, still apply!” 

He started to laugh.

But then something changed.

“I began to think about all the things I’d done really from 2011 onwards, which was to build an activist base around the country, to contest elections: to actually engage tens of thousands of people in politics who’d never actually ever been engaged physically in politics, and building what I called the ‘people’s army’, and the thought that those millions who’d followed me through general elections, European elections, referendum campaigns, they’d all come back in 2019, and kind of the feeling that I was letting them down. That was one thing that really preyed on the mind. And the other was the feeling something different was happening, particularly among young people, that I’d become for some reason an interesting figure to them.”

When we spoke, in 2017, Farage was waiting to see how Brexit would play out. But he said there might just be another political earthquake, “something seismic”, to come. “And it could be the Conservative Party that’s the most vulnerable to it.”

This election showed he was right about that, and yet he thinks something even bigger, even more seismic, will happen. “If you come and see me in six or seven years – if I’m still here. Well, who knows? And probably by then I won’t be the leader of this movement, somebody younger and brighter will be. But this movement’s going to grow, and politics in Britain will be unrecognisable from today.”

By the end of the 2020s, Farage believes there will have been fundamental electoral reform. “And with that, the Labour Party and the Conservative Party frankly will barely exist. I promise you it’s going to change. And it’s interesting: the only thing I’ve been really good at in my life – and I’ve done a few things quite well and done a few things quite badly, but I’ve done lots of things – is my ability to see change and what’s coming in the future. There is a massive change coming. The old order ain’t going to be there. I can see it coming.”

We met in Clacton, Essex, on Saturday 22 June, at Reform’s impromptu HQ, where Farage and his entourage are occupying two tatty rooms above an amusement arcade, a short walk from the sea front, which seemed desolate in the early morning summer drizzle. The previous day, Farage had given an interview to BBC Panorama in which he said the West provoked Russia’s war in Ukraine because of the EU’s and Nato’s eastward expansion.

Farage delights in outrage and his comments had outraged. The BBC was leading on the story across its platforms, excitably promoting its interview and inviting responses to it. The right-wing press was angry as well, and remained so for several days afterwards, and even the pro-Farage Telegraph, for which he writes, had splashed on it that Saturday morning. It also published a comment piece by Richard Kemp, a former soldier, who denounced Farage as not a serious leader.

As I drove east to Clacton (the closer I got the emptier and more silent were the roads), I listened to Ben Wallace, the former Conservative defence secretary, and a long-time confidant of Boris Johnson, pompously describing Farage on Radio’s 4 Today programme as an ignorant “pub bore”. (On Sunday 23 June, Boris Johnson denounced Farage as “morally repugnant”. Farage promptly responded, camply dressed in a white jacket and speaking with a loudhailer from the upper deck of an open-top bus, calling Johnson “the worst prime minister in modern times”.)

Later, we stopped for a pint at the Three Jays pub in Jaywick, the small coastal town that often features in those perennial narratives about faraway, left behind England. I asked Farage, who opposed the American-led invasion of Iraq as well as the intervention that ultimately led to the fall of General al-Gaddafi in Libya in 2011, if his comments on Putin and the Ukraine war had been his first serious false step of the campaign.

He scoffed at the suggestion.

But even your friends in the Telegraph have gone in hard against you over it, Kemp and others?

“It’s not a false step, because, you know, they can’t think outside the box, they’re not capable. They’re all warmongers!”

Even the Telegraph, your old friends there? 

“They all supported Libya, and what did that do? Isis didn’t exist before Libya. Boats weren’t crossing the Mediterranean before Libya. What do you think’s happening in Dover today? It’s all come from the fall of Libya. Am I going to – just because I get some criticism – change my mind on something I passionately felt a decade ago, spoke about in public? I predicted what would happen: Putin is a bad, dangerous individual, but a very clever, smart operator. If I see a drunk across the street, do I go over and prod him in the chest and hope he punches me? No, I don’t do that. Well, if you want conflict, yeah, if you want a punch-up, yeah, hold my jacket. I mean, that’s great! We didn’t need to do any of this. We didn’t need to do it. We have given that man a causus belli with the Russian people, and that is a fundamental geopolitical mistake. And Madeleine Albright [the former US secretary of state], who was part of that process under Clinton back in the Nineties, even she will now say we shouldn’t have done this.”

Earlier that morning, as I arrived at Reform HQ, a police officer and security guard surveyed me with suspicion before nodding me through without speaking. Farage, who was tanned and wearing a pink shirt, a tie and jacket, was sat at a table, looking at his phone, easily the smartest and most flamboyantly dressed guy in the room. He was receiving two texts a minute. A huge Union Jack flag was suspended on the wall opposite. After asking for coffee – “We can’t start without coffee” – he invited me to follow him into the adjacent room where he gave a short, rallying address to the assembled activists. Some had travelled seven hours from Wales and were delighted to meet him.

One would struggle to call Farage’s Clacton headquarters a war room. It is underfunded and understaffed and has the atmosphere of a run-down local newspaper that may soon publish its final edition. But Farage seemed oblivious to the dismal surroundings, and his team are confident he will be elected to parliament for the first time on 4 July. He has tormented Sunak throughout the campaign by threatening to lead a takeover of the Conservative Party but, for now, he is simply enjoying its misfortune and struggles, from the D-Day debacle to the insider betting scandal, which Farage expects will become even bigger. 

“When this betting scandal finally breaks, you wait. You ain’t seen nothing yet. If you look at the volumes on Betfair that day, all we’ve earmarked so far are three or four people, but Betfair’s one exchange. What I want to know is how many people walked into Ladbrokes or William Hill with £150 in cash, £200 in cash. If I wanted to do an insider trading betting scam, I’m not going on Betfair: I’m giving the lads cash. Don’t forget, I’ve worked in and around these industries. I know how the bad guys work, and so the Gambling Commission will get to the bottom of this… I mean, it’s like the Conservative Party are stealing the light bulbs as they leave the building.”

Farage with his security team in Frinton. Photo by Chris Floyd

Reform is, in effect, a one-man show. Farage, leader and chief executive, calls it a start-up. It is a limited company set up to make a profit, but Farage said it will have to change to become “a mutual organisation with a governing board”. He laughed when I suggested he had taken his lead from Nicola Sturgeon and Peter Murrell, the husband-and-wife team who led the SNP until they suddenly didn’t. Except that, unlike the Sturgeon-Murrell duopoly, all power in Reform is concentrated in just one man: Farage, as Richard Tice discovered when he was abruptly replaced as leader a week into the campaign.

After we left Clacton, on what turned out to be a warm, bright day, I followed him for an hour along Frinton high street – “this is true-blue Tory Essex”, one aide said, “and they should be weighing the votes here” – but Farage was greeted, again and again, like a returning local celebrity. I have interviewed him twice before, in 2014 and 2017, and this time he seemed more confident, more at ease, more certain in his sense of mission and what he believes is his growing popularity.

He is an extraordinarily fluent speaker and nimble populist communicator who plays the game of politics as well as anyone. He laughs often and speaks loudly. He leans into controversy. He excoriates his detractors, especially Boris Johnson and the Daily Mail, which has hardened its hostility to him in recent weeks as the Conservative campaign unravels. Farage is a street agitator and TV raconteur in one package. He has an excellent memory and uses it to disarm and charm – or, when necessary, to attack and traduce. He forgets nothing, he told me. “I’m like the guy in Rain Man.” He fears no one.

I witnessed scarcely any hostility to him in Frinton. Most of those who approached, especially women, wanted a selfie or a signed brochure. “I know him,” one woman with a young child in a pushchair said to me. “He’s that bloke from the telly.” Her bewildered child ended up having her photograph taken with a beaming Farage.

One man who ran a charity shop asked Farage and his team to move on “because you’re bad for business, Nigel”. Another challenged him about his Putin comments and said: “Nigel, you’re an appeaser.” Even his opponents addressed him like someone they knew. It was similar with Boris Johnson on the campaign trail and his old rival in London, Ken Livingstone. Politicians who have mastered the cult of personality.

Another man said to Farage, as he emerged from a Greggs having stopped for coffee and a sausage roll: “Well done for stepping forward, Nigel.” Another shouted at him: “The closest we have to Enoch Powell: stop the boats!” Farage does not welcome comparisons to Powell and allowed the comment to pass without acknowledgement. Several women approached and told him they would vote for Reform but would not tell their husbands.

It was noticeable how many young people gathered around him. They knew him from his turn on ITV’s I’m a Celebrity…, they said, and from his TikTok videos. In 2017, when I last interviewed Farage, he said that only he and Jeremy Corbyn knew how to use Twitter properly. He and his long-time aide, Dan Jukes, were early adopters of TikTok, “during peacetime”, as they put it, and now they consider the young left-wing Labour MP Zarah Sultana to be their only serious rival on the platform among British politicians, in what is now presumably wartime, because of the election.

Farage is enjoying himself hugely while Starmer, who he says has done a “good job but is not a national leader”, and Sunak seem so agonised, so buttoned-up, their diction so circumscribed, their pronouncements so fearful, rehearsed, formulaic and mechanical. Farage speaks in interviews, on platforms, and in the street, in direct, straightforward sentences. He is not a politician in search of an idiom: he uses short words and rhetorical repetition effectively. He has his own style. And he means what he says. There is no one else like him, which is why I am not convinced that Reform or his movement would continue without him.

A secular preacher: “I’ve controlled my destiny, I’ve set agendas, I’ve got debates going”. Photo by Chris Floyd

Apart from Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, Nigel Farage is the most consequential politician of the past 50 years, and yet he has never been an MP. That seems about to change. He may be a public school-educated former City trader, but he has broad cross-class appeal and has led three parties, two of which, the Brexit Party and Reform, he set up. He leads what he calls a “people’s army” of the disaffected, the angry, the marginalised and the reviled, and he is intent on the destruction of the Conservative Party, which he believes has betrayed its long-time voters and everyone who voted for Brexit.

Something is happening in the country, he keeps saying. Trust and confidence in British politics and our elected politicians is at an all-time low, and he wants to exploit it.

“I keep repeating this phrase, ‘Something is happening out there,’” he said. “I’m going to sum it up this way: a deep sense of unease that we’re losing something very special.”

What does he think is being lost, I asked.

He spoke of “social decline”, sounding for the first time more like an American religious conservative such as Rod Dreher. “The number of people who say to me, ‘I can’t wait to leave London,’ and that’s people of all classes and all income brackets, just the growth of law and order problems, the dominance now of the foreign gangs wherever you go. That’s bad, but I also think we’re in something of a moral decline. What I mean by that – I’m not a Methodist, as you know! – is that we are losing a sense of what we are, what we stand for, what the nation is. The sheer poisoning of the minds of our children, from an early age all through primary, secondary, tertiary education, telling kids how awful we are, we’re the most evil country that’s ever lived. And I just feel we’re losing a sense of the Judaeo-Christian principles which underpin everything.”

He leaned towards me and whispered: “And the mainstream parties don’t understand it. And that’s where – before the Brexit vote – I could see there was a big disconnect between the big-city domination of debate and what was happening out there in the real country. That disconnect is bigger now than it’s ever been.”

In 2014, Farage said to me that he was neither left nor right: he was a radical, in the tradition of John Bright. Since then, he has recalibrated. And he dismissed the suggestion that he was “hard right” as “nonsense”. Today, he said, he “supported the little guy against the big battalion. In some ways, my economic narrative against the global corporatists is quite left wing. Look, I fought the banks last year. I’m not for big global capital. Quite the opposite.”

Class-led voting alliances were shifting and our politics are increasingly volatile. Labour will win a big majority in this year’s election, but it could be squandered. Support for the party is broad but shallow.

“In 2014-15, voters put me to the left of Cameron,” Farage said. “I would now definitely be centre right, because the Tories have gone from being centre right to being centre. On social issues, on virtually everything. The whole of left/right politics as we call it is rebalancing in Europe, in America, everywhere else.”

He predicts that Marine Le Pen will become president of France. “Every French presidential election, she goes up by 5 [percentage points]. It reminds me of Ukip: fourth in 1999, third in 2004, second in 2009, first in 2014 in the European elections. That’s what she’s doing in France. Our differences are so fundamental on economics. I mean, she’s for retirement at 60, she’s state control of everything. A bit of economic nationalism is fine, I get that, I’m not sure selling off all our utilities to the Chinese is necessarily a very good idea, hence I’m not the Thatcherite my critics might say, but her economics is bonkers. But she represents something about being French that they see they’re losing in Marseille, in the northern suburbs of Paris. You look at the old World War One battlefields of Loos and round there, the old coalfields that were communist from 1945 – they’re all Le Pen. In the north, her strength is unbelievable.”

He concedes his old friend Donald Trump has been wounded by his recent criminal conviction. “The conviction’s hurt: it was designed to hurt. Short term, that has knocked them back a little bit. I still think he’ll win.”

Will Trump go to prison?

“I pray they don’t do that. I worry for America and where it’s going. I hate the moral superiority of the modern left in America. It is at a level that could provoke goodness knows what as a reaction and we don’t want that at all. God knows where it might go. But one of the reasons I’m a big Trump fan is because Putin wouldn’t have invaded Ukraine, it wouldn’t have happened. He signed the [bilateral agreement between Israel and Arab countries] Abraham Accords, an incredible achievement, and I think Hamas really did what they did because they knew that Saudi Arabia was about to join the club. You can dislike this New Yorker but he’s the first American president not to go to war. Would Trump have backed Libya? Would he, hell. Would Trump have backed Iraq? Would he, hell. This was a peace-making president. And I’m someone that believes in a strong deterrent, but I am naturally pro-peace not pro-war, and I’ve been that way, even on Afghanistan. I just thought, ‘What the hell are we doing?’”

How many votes can Reform win – five million, six million? “Every political party has a ceiling. Let’s not delude ourselves about this! Look, there’s no squeeze. There is no squeeze. In the last week, we’ve got stronger.” He paused for a long time. “To some extent, I’ve controlled my destiny over the first three and a half weeks. I’ve set agendas, I’ve got debates going, I’ve done stuff, and I’m going to try to go on doing that for the last week and a half. But probably it’ll be events that I can’t control.”

As I drove away from the Three Jays, Farage was in the beer garden, drinking gin and tonic because the real ale had run out and there was no spare barrel. Here he was, a street fighter and raconteur: and now the self-described Billy Graham of politics. His detractors believe he is much worse than that: a dangerous xenophobe. Jeremy Corbyn says as much in a recent interview with the New Statesman. But he does not care what anyone thinks. He is having too much fun. “I’ve got bags of energy, lots of optimism, I’m enjoying life enormously,” he said. “I enjoy whatever I do, I believe in what I believe in, I’m not afraid of anything, I’m not afraid of anyone. I’m just not. I’m a warrior. And I love it!”

[See also: Nigel Farage and the populist peril]

This article appears in the 28 June 2024 issue of the New Statesman

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Lammy Doctrine