Nigel Farage has an adjective for the good things in life — “proper”. Proper blokes, proper jobs, proper markets. And when we meet at The Lamb, a pub in London’s Leadenhall Market, he clearly is in the mood for a proper lunch. “Have we got an order in?” the leader of the UK Independence party exclaims within two minutes of our arrival. “A man could die of thirst in here.”
This was Farage’s local pub when he was a trader on the London Metal Exchange. When he started in the 1980s, the City was a fantastic gentlemen’s club. “Now it’s like being a battery chicken,” he sighs.
Farage, in contrast, is a free-range bull. He once labelled the European Council president a “damp rag”, and said Britons should be “concerned if a group of Romanian people suddenly moved in next door”. Supporters call him the boss man; opponents call him a racist. He is, undoubtedly, Britain’s most effective Brussels-basher, the man without whom there would be no EU referendum in June.
Ukip is the biggest new party to emerge in Britain since Labour a century ago. It won 3.8m votes in last year’s general election, as many as the Scottish Nationalists and Liberal Democrats combined, and is likely to gain dozens of seats in local elections in May.
Yet as Farage jovially plunges into his pint of ale, there is a sense that he may be losing his touch. Academics argue that his rhetoric puts off the very moderates whose votes will decide the in/out referendum. Ukip has also slipped into civil war. Farage is not on speaking terms with its sole member of parliament, Douglas Carswell; critics say he is incapable of sharing the limelight. “The cult of personality is very strong,” says one Ukipper. “They’d be better off ditching him,” says a Tory MP.
An easy question to answer is, does Farage want a second pint? A harder one is, might he soon be as outdated as his overcoat?
We head outside, where Farage can smoke. The son of an alcoholic Kent stockbroker, he joined the City aged 18 from London’s prestigious Dulwich College, and then became convinced that Britain needed a more Eurosceptic party than the Conservatives. “I’d been predicting a commodity boom all through the 1990s. Politics took over and I bloody well missed it!” he jokes.
A passer-by intercedes: “I thought it was a doppelgänger but it’s actually you!” Farage is delighted. Voters yearn for a politician they’d like to have a beer with; finally here’s a politician who’d take up the offer. “Every pub’s a parliament!” he enthuses.
The Lamb serves food but Farage, 52, has other plans. We walk down Cornhill to Simpson’s Tavern — London’s oldest surviving chophouse, where he has been a customer for more than 30 years. “Sadly most of the waitresses have changed,” he says.
Most of the waitresses have not changed, it seems. “Haven’t seen you here for a while, Nigel,” says one, pouring him a pint before the door has shut behind me. I survey the clientele, and conclude that there’s unlikely to be a queue for the women’s toilets. “I love it here,” beams Farage.
We take our third pint to the courtyard. An hour gone, and the alcohol we’ve consumed is already half the recommended weekly limit. “I know. It’s just ludicrous,” says Farage, resting on an old beer barrel, his mood livelier than his grey suit suggests. He reaches for his third cigarette. “They’ll be telling us this is bad for us next. They want to live forever!”
I ask about his hobby: visiting first-world-war battlefields. Farage opens up. “Whenever I go there, I always think, what would I have done? If I was a 19-year-old, fresh out of college . . . would I have been a proper man or not?”
Our table is ready inside. We squeeze alongside each other on a wooden bench with our backs to the window. Farage orders the house speciality — stewed cheese — for both of us, and picks a bottle of wine. For me, this is now entering stag-party territory; for him, it’s little more than holy communion. “The thing we used to drink here was port,” he says. “We’d all go back to work, all crimson. That’s just what we did! No one cared. I don’t drink port at all now, ever.”
What happened in the afternoons? “Chaos. Extraordinary. I remember once there was a really big cock-up . . . I remember the boss saying, ‘So when did this happen?’ ‘Half-past four yesterday afternoon.’ ‘Oh well, there we are then.’ The boss accepted this!”
Farage is quick to depict politics as a sacrifice. “I’m a loopy optimist, aren’t I?” he says. “I like to think I’ve changed the centre of gravity on lots of national debates. But there is no life at all — nothing.” It would be even worse, he says, if he’d succeeded in his seventh attempt to enter parliament last year. “Can you imagine if I’d been elected to Westminster? I’d need to be there every day.”
He has four children, two with his second wife Kirsten, who is German. In the 2000s, he twice had to remortgage his house in Kent. “My financial position is slightly better than it was, but for about 10 years it was pretty rough,” he says. How is it better? “It just is. Slightly better. There we are,” he says, drawing a boundary.
The cheese arrives, and Farage smears his white toast with sauce. “Yeah mustard, yeah lovely, proper job!” he says, reaching for the Lea & Perrins. He is right — it’s wonderful. The wine, a fruity Bordeaux, is excellent too. I should visit the 1980s more often.
An old friend of Farage’s arrives at a neighbouring table and points at the paper napkin around Farage’s collar. “You must be meeting someone important if you’ve got that tucked in there!” Farage laughs, carefree. “Is it a proper lunch, Kevin?” he asks his friend. “No, we’ve got a meeting later,” comes the reply. “They were the days, Kevin,” says Farage, “they were the days.”
Accused of nostalgia, however, he turns serious. “The club was lovely, but the club wasn’t very efficient. It had to change. The sadness is — this is where I may be nostalgic — the people whose working lives are on computers, they’re not as fulfilling as working lives that are actually meeting people doing stuff.”
Farage orders the Edwardian pork chop, well done, with a sausage. “I can’t help it, I love pork chop.” It’s my turn. “Lamb chops? Pork chops?” Farage suggests. “Mixed grill?” offers the waitress. I order goat’s cheese in filo pastry.
There is a pause while Farage’s ears relay the news to his brain. “What? No. They shouldn’t serve rubbish like that here. Goat’s cheese? I mean . . . Goat’s cheese?” He turns to the waitress. “You can’t give him bloody goat’s cheese.” I look up at her for sympathy; she looks back with contempt. Farage continues: “You’re not a veggie, are you, or something like that? If you are, fine. But what on earth are you doing here then?”
And for a brief moment I know how the Romanians must feel.
We move on to less controversial matters, such as the EU. Many of Europe’s other populist leaders — Italy’s Beppe Grillo, Greece’s Alexis Tsipras, even Hungary’s Viktor Orban — are popular among young voters. Farage’s success has relied on the old.
I ask if his obsession with past wars informs his combative approach to Europe. He protests: “If things aren’t going swimmingly, there’s an argument for radical growth and reform.”
If you don’t like that line, he has others — and he delivers them brilliantly. “I love Europe! France is wonderful. It should be. We’ve subsidised it for 40 years.” He croaks with laughter, and I find myself joining in.
“For seven years, I had a business relationship in Milan, Milano,” Farage continues. “Dealing with Italians, just, let me tell you . . . Are we the same? Good lord, no! That’s why Europe’s fun — it’s fun because it’s different. A political project that seeks to make it all the same — it’s ghastly.”
How would he have voted in Britain’s previous European referendum in 1975, had he been old enough? “I’d have voted ‘yes,’” he says, citing the need to bring down tariff barriers.
What about trade now? I ask. Surely the UK wouldn’t be able to negotiate trade deals as easily if it left the EU. “Iceland managed it!” he shoots back. But on what terms? “They’re happy! Switzerland’s happy!”
Still, leaving the EU is hardly likely to answer the UK’s problems, I say. “I’ve been quite clear: it’s not a silver bullet,” he replies, arguing that Brexit will simply give Britain more control of its own affairs. But many of the things that vex Ukip voters are trends beyond the gift of politicians — our future wages will depend more on automation than the EU. “My friend Jim Mellon has been telling me this for a couple of years,” says Farage. “That robotics are way more advanced than people think, and that we’re going to have a massive social problem.”
I ask if he remembers any particular trades from his City days. He blusters for a while, concluding, “The great skill of investment is to know when the right time is to get out. Getting in’s easy.”
So when does he get out of Ukip? “Good question. Well asked. Where’s my chop? I’m ravenous.” Informed that a well-done chop takes 35 minutes, he decides that he needs a cigarette more than I need an answer.
Eventually the chef taps on the window — the chop is done. But Farage has been dragged away by his Nokia, bringing news of Ukip infighting. He returns a few minutes later with a face like a National Front manifesto.
We sit down to our meal, and I gently ask if the party will really suspend Carswell, its only MP. “I don’t care,” he says, in a tone that indicates that he probably does. “The level of support I have within Ukip is phenomenal. The fact that some people don’t like it — well, there you are.”
Farage’s voice is now a series of bangs, like books falling off a shelf. I ponder the obvious way to lighten the mood: pour him more wine. But when I ask if it’s true that he’s in favour of legalising drugs, he still spies a trap. “This is the wrong time to ask me that question — we’ve got a referendum to fight. So you’re not going to get the answer you want,” he says. “But if ever there was a subject that needed a genuine royal commission . . . this is the issue.”
Few of his supporters would agree with that, or with his fairly liberal view of gay marriage. “What you’re saying is I’m not a pigeonholed rightwing Tory. No. I’m more of an old liberal in some ways. I think the state should butt out,” he says, his guard still up. “I’m not as easily pigeonholed as people would like.”
I try to keep pace on the wine, remembering that Farage once took two bottles of gin to an election debate at Methodist Central Hall. In such debates, he excels. Countering him with statistics rarely works. How can opponents beat him? “Try to make me angry.”
Right now his focus is on touring the country. “Most people in politics, they view the people as a slight inconvenience,” Farage says. How does he persuade people? “You actually mustn’t try too hard with this stuff. The skill of this is to make people believe they’ve made their own minds up . . . If they ask you a question, that’s their flick switch.” He stresses his reasonableness. “I’m not this wild-eyed populist that’s descended from the hills . . . I pick and choose what I do, what I say.”
Critics say his appeal is limited to those who are already converted. The thought riles him. “Am I bit of a blokeish bloke? Yes. Should I change my image? This is what they tell me — these people who come in and want jobs. I should feminise.” He’s enjoying himself again. “I mean, for God’s sake. I am what I am.” Fine — but was it really necessary, I ask, to compare the EU to a serial date rapist? “We can’t even tell a joke!” he responds.
Our meals have disappeared and I wonder if I’ve made it through to coffee. Farage looks at his watch. “Oooh, gosh,” he exclaims, and I assume the double espresso will have to wait. He turns to a waitress. “That was amazing. We’ve got work to do. But we could do with a large port each before we go. Makes sense, doesn’t it?” To him, at least.
I ask if he’s a fan of that other embodiment of English nostalgia, the poet John Betjeman. His eyes widen with schoolboy enthusiasm. “Mega. Huge! I love Betjeman, I adore Betjeman, I’ve visited his grave several times.” He recites a couplet about sportsman CB Fry, and eases himself back into tales of Dulwich College and the first world war.
Before the last general election, Farage vowed to resign as Ukip leader if he failed to win a seat in parliament — then reversed course. Was the promise a mistake? “Of course.” What will he do if he loses the referendum? “I haven’t got a clue,” he says.
Arguably, he loses either way: if Britain votes to leave the EU, Boris Johnson takes the credit; if it remains a member, Ukip crumbles. Farage demurs. “This is not a greasy pole for me,” he says, before hinting at a broader programme of shaking up Westminster.
The port arrives and we move into the following week’s alcohol allowance. I broach the subject of Enoch Powell, the previous bearer of the anti-immigrant flame, who warned of rivers of blood in 1968. Farage once drove him to an event. “Powell was brilliant in so many ways — militarily, intellectually,” he says. “I don’t want to be Enoch Powell, do I? I don’t want to be right, but get the politics of it badly wrong.”
Before we can finish our port, our host brings us a complimentary top-up. Farage is outside for another cigarette. He has a new set of admirers: the old boys’ rugby team from Dulwich College are drinking port from a silver ladle. Soon Farage has a ladle of port in one hand, and his glass of port in the other.
It has started to rain but Farage isn’t quite finished. He leads me round the corner to admire the worn steps of London’s oldest coffee house, the Jamaica Wine House. We return to Simpson’s to fetch our coats. I reach into my pocket to find the remains of a Marks and Spencer bread roll that I had hoped would line my stomach.
“I hope it was different to most FT lunches,” says Farage affectionately, glowing with pride or port. “I must say goodbye to the bloody girls.” He pops back inside, then strides off towards the City — enchanted by the past, borne back ceaselessly into the present.
Henry Mance is an FT political correspondent
Illustration by James Ferguson