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17 June 2016

Reckoning for a radical: what next for Nigel Farage?

The one man who did more than anyone to make the EU referendum happen. 

By Stephen Bush

Although the picture-sharing app Instagram is more commonly associated with those voters who are least likely to cast a vote for Ukip – young, university-educated and mostly female – it is by consulting the app that one gets the best sense of what Nigel Farage has been up to during the referendum campaign, carefully chronicled by Ukip’s press chief, Gawain Towler.

Towler, whose gravelly voice and sharp suits summon up the image of a character actor in a 1970s BBC drama, is the unlikely owner of one of Westminster’s most updated and most diverse Instagram accounts: memorials, railway stations, butchers, and Farage himself at rallies, on local radio and knocking on doors.

The BBC once compared Farage to John Wilkes, the late-18th-century British radical. During the American War of Independence, Wilkes supported the American colonists against the British empire, albeit from a distance. Likewise, for much of the referendum campaign, Farage has played the Wilkes role: a vocal supporter kept at a distance, though not the Atlantic Ocean but by the official Brexit campaign, Vote Leave, which regards him, paradoxically, as a toxic asset.

The trouble with Farage is that while Vote Leave would not have secured the referendum without him or Ukip’s rise, it fears it cannot win the referendum with him. So spooked were the Tories by Farage’s success in the fraught years after George Osborne’s 2012 “omnishambles” Budget that David Cameron was forced to promise an In/Out EU referendum. It was Farage’s damage to the Labour vote that helped secure the Conservative majority that allowed the referendum to go ahead.

Farage’s biography ought to allow him to reach across classes: his stockbroker father walked out on him and his mother when he was five; he was educated privately at Dulwich College but unlike most politicians he went straight into work in the City as a metals trader instead of pursuing a degree. And yet he remains divisive, as hated by the 87 per cent of voters who did not back Ukip in 2015 as he is loved by the voters who did. One poll summed up the disconnect: when Ukip voters are asked to cast Farage in a film, they pick Sean Bean, an all-star action hero. When all other voters are asked to do the same, they pick Rowan Atkinson, the star of the Mr Bean films and television show.

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It is not just swing voters who believe that Farage is ill suited to the role of a leading man: shortly after last year’s general election, in which Ukip polled four million votes but secured just one parliamentary seat, Patrick O’Flynn, the former political editor of the Daily Express, Britain’s most virulently anti-European newspaper and now a Ukip MEP, described Farage as “snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive” in an interview with the Times. It was the signal for an insurrection, driven by Flynn and Douglas Carswell, Ukip’s single MP. The intention was to replace him at the top of the party with a more collegiate, less voter-repellent figure such as Suzanne Evans.

Flynn and Carswell forgot, however, what insiders describe as “Ukip’s one rule: Nigel always wins”. Flynn was stripped of his front-bench position and Carswell went into a form of internal exile, as a result of which the party’s leader and its sole MP are barely on speaking terms.

Carswell, along with Evans, the preferred candidate for many of Ukip’s anti-Faragistas, later defied Farage and joined Vote Leave, rather than the Ukip-backed Leave.EU. All of which means, with the bookmakers and the polls moving towards a Leave vote, that Farage could be cast as the unwelcome guest at his own victory party. He may end up being repudiated and marginalised by the Brexit campaign, even as Vote Leave – with its illusory promise of an extra £350m for the NHS and the imagined threat of 75 million Turks coming to Britain – borrows liberally from the Farage formula.

Farage is a grudge-bearer. His irritation at being – as he sees it – treated shabbily by politicians who have profited from his success will not dissipate even if Britain votes to leave on 23 June. He has already suspended Evans from the party and Carswell’s reckoning will come after the referendum.

Yet it could all be different this time: Farage’s hold on Ukip may be weakening. In Wales Neil Hamilton, a critic of Farage, has displaced Nathan Gill, a Faragista, as leader of the party in the Welsh Assembly. Roland Smith, a fellow of the Adam Smith Institute and one of the few liberal Brexiters, has said that an Out victory in the referendum would “put Farage on the dole”, while a defeat would “put Farage on steroids”.

He could yet surprise his allies and opponents by walking away from politics altogether. During the 2010 election campaign, the small plane in which he was touring the country crashed. He still carries the wounds. Observers say that Farage’s capacity for drink has increased since he was injured, partly as a result of the pain. Triumph in the referendum might make the perfect overture to retirement or to a rebrand as a right-wing commentator, perhaps in the United States.

But the resentment over globalisation that fuels support for Ukip – and unites the crowds that still receive Farage with adoration – will not end with a vote for Brexit. Farage, never one for forgiveness, might baulk at making a gift of Ukip to Evans, Carswell and O’Flynn. He is still only 52. The lure of the spotlight is likely to prove irresistible, even if the referendum does deliver Ukip its much-coveted prize.

This article appears in the 14 Jun 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Britain on the brink