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He had become the forgotten man of British politics, but when he bounded on to the stage for a rally in Peterborough this week, 1,500 ecstatic Brexiters chanted the name of the person who has changed the course of European history and convulsed the UK’s elite: “Nigel! Nigel! Nigel!”
Nigel Farage, the populist who led the campaign to take Britain out of the EU, looked like a spent force after the country voted for Brexit three years ago; the UK Independence party descended into chaos without his leadership, as he embarked on a career as a talk radio host, making occasional cameo appearances as Donald Trump’s best buddy.
But now with Brexit still unresolved and Theresa May’s Conservative government falling apart as it tries to secure Britain’s exit from the EU, the rally sent a chilling message to mainstream politics: their most effective opponent is back. “This fight now is about far more than just leaving the European Union,” he told cheering supporters. “This is a full-on battle against the establishment.”
When then-prime minister David Cameron announced in 2013 that he would hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, Tory MPs exulted that the policy would kill off the threat posed by Mr Farage. He knew better. “They’re coming to play on our pitch now,” he told the Financial Times at the time. Six years on, Mr Cameron is history and the Tory party has been torn apart. But Mr Farage is not finished: he is determined to wreak further damage to the Conservatives. This month — if opinion polls are right — his new Brexit party will deliver a cohort of MEPs to join a Europe-wide populist assault.
After two decades of campaigning against the UK’s membership of the EU, including 10 years on and off at the head of Ukip, the 55-year-old, who has been married twice and has four children, was thought to be semi-retired. He railed against Mrs May’s failure to deliver Brexit, but his time on the political frontline appeared to be over.
The idea of forming a new party crystallised at the end of last year, when Mr Farage told friends he was convinced Mrs May would miss the Brexit departure deadline of March 29 2019. “We’ve got to do something,” he said to allies.
Mr Farage is both loathed and admired for his blokeish, beery persona, but his impact is not disputed. As one senior Tory puts it, “He is the most influential British politician since Tony Blair — possibly even since [Margaret] Thatcher”. Nick Clegg, former leader of the pro-EU Liberal Democrats says he took Mr Farage very seriously: “It was obvious there was a strong English, anti-European, anti-immigrant movement waiting for someone to articulate it.”
Unlike Ukip, Mr Farage’s new Brexit party is slick, with a mix of celebrities and new candidates for the European Parliament elections. He claims 90 per cent of the party’s funding comes from individual £25 donations, although a single mystery donor of £100,000 has not been identified. One month in, the party is polling at around 30 per cent and is expected to secure the largest vote share on May 23.
Yet Mr Farage is an unlikely insurgent. Educated at Dulwich College in south London, a private school, he followed his father, Guy, into the City, working as a highly remunerated, pinstriped commodities trader. But Mr Farage heads up a counter-attack of the old establishment against the new: he reviles the era of Mr Blair and New Labour, which he sees as a national takeover by a coterie of Oxbridge-educated, metrosexual, professional politicians. To challenge them, Mr Farage turned Ukip — whose ageing members could, he said, be recognised by their Bomber Command ties — into populists. After a late night dinner, one friend asked what was his biggest regret. “Nigel said it was not taking part in D-Day.”
Others in his circle, however, believe that he still yearns to join the club he has devoted his life to lambasting. “Part of him really craves the recognition for what he’s done, hence all the stories about him wanting a knighthood or a place in the Lords,” says one. “A lot of it goes back to the days of when he tried and failed to become a Tory candidate.”
Mr Clegg, who held one-on-one television Brexit debates with Mr Farage, says: “His motivation, as far as I can see, is to destroy the Tory party.”
Mr Farage’s opponents claim that the notorious 2016 “Breaking Point” poster depicting a trail of migrants arriving at a “full” Britain placed him well beyond the pale. His friendship with Mr Trump and his strategist, Steve Bannon, further fuelled those concerns.
Despite the success, one prize has eluded Mr Farage: a seat in the House of Commons. But his new party gives him a chance to try for the eighth time: he sees this month’s elections as the springboard for a full offensive on Britain’s two big parties — Conservative and Labour — at the next general election.
At that point, the Brexit party will stand candidates across the country. He will be one of them. “It’s quite difficult to ask everyone else to do it and not do it yourself,” he said this week. But Mr Farage will face the same challenge as he did with Ukip: how to turn a protest party with a single message — deliver Brexit — into an election-winning force.
Mr Farage may achieve his dream of breaking up the mainstream parties as we know them. Or his legacy may remain that of the constant, but powerful outsider: wielding influence from the stage, studio and sidelines but never in the corridors of power.
The writers are the FT’s Whitehall correspondent and political editor
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