Nigel Farage is arguably the most important British politician of the past decade. When he speaks, listen. His political storytelling, galvanising persona and understanding of the public have given him the power to shape what drives British politics, from the media to the two main parties.
It is no surprise, then, that a campaign he started in response to Coutts bank closing his account has resulted in Alison Rose, the chief executive of NatWest, Coutts’s owner, resigning. The furore has resulted in calls for tighter banking regulation to protect free speech. But there’s also an essential political lesson: people must stop underestimating Farage.
On the Today programme on 26 July, Nick Robinson suggested Farage’s campaign was really about positioning for a return to politics, not banking regulation. “There are people saying, ‘I know what this is about: he wants to get back into politics again.’ I know you’ve run seven times and lost seven times.” Farage interjected: “I’m really not going to have this. I’m sick to death of your condescending tone.” Robinson retreated and said he was simply teasing Farage, who replied: “What you should say to people is you’re the only person in British history who has won two national elections [the 2014 and 2019 European elections], leading two different parties [Ukip and the Brexit Party].” Quite.
Robinson dropped his patronising tone and asked whether Farage would return to politics, the obvious position being leader of Reform UK, the successor to the Brexit Party. Farage declined. That’s bad news for his former comrades, who are struggling to break through. As Ben Walker pointed out in Morning Call yesterday, Reform is hovering around 6 per cent in the polls, far below where Ukip stood in 2012.
There are two key things Reform is missing. First, a defining purpose such as Brexit. Deprived of this tectonic issue, Reform’s offer is a strange mixture of lower immigration and monetary policy reform. Second, the party is still grieving the loss of the political force that is Farage.
Farage is not returning to politics presently, but he is on the hunt for a new Goliath to defeat. Since the UK left the EU in 2020, he’s become a studied critic of the Chinese Communist Party. He’s lambasted what he sees as excessive green policies. And now the former commodities trader is raging against “an industry that we bailed out in 2008 after their greed and stupidity” (as he put it on Radio 4).
Farage is the master of channelling people’s anger towards a vague monolith, which in turn becomes a symbol, a host for people’s frustrations. With households enduring the longest peacetime living standards crisis since the Napoleonic era, frustration is percolating around the country, waiting for direction. Economic hardship breeds populism. Farage just needs a target.