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Among the schoolboys who took the train to and from Dulwich College in the mid-1970s, there was one 11-year-old show-off with a special, vulgar talent of his own. As they crowded onto the platform at West Dulwich station, he was the only one who could spit all the way across the double rails and hit people on the opposite platform.
His schoolmates were in awe of him. They all had a go at emulating his prowess but fell short. One recalls: ‘It was quite an achievement. I was impressed.’
That gobby boy was a young Nigel Farage, and here was an early snapshot of the in-your-face personality the British public would come to know and either love or hate with a passion.
Nigel Farage, on the one hand, laddish, outrageous, rude, provocative, a natural performer in front of a crowd, a braggart. On the other, a defier of convention and a breaker of boundaries, someone with the bottle to attempt the seemingly impossible and succeed
On the one hand, laddish, outrageous, rude, provocative, a natural performer in front of a crowd, a braggart. On the other, a defier of convention and a breaker of boundaries, someone with the bottle to attempt the seemingly impossible and succeed.
Here was the rebel who would spit in the eye of the Establishment in his crusade to turn British politics on its head and end the UK’s membership of the EU after close to half a century of what he saw as vassalage.
For his vital part in this monumental upheaval, which changed the direction the country was going in, he has to be one of the most important politicians of modern British history.
Though never elected to the House of Commons or serving as a government minister, he has been a more significant player than most leaders of the traditional political parties, more influential than some prime ministers.
Indeed, the Brexit he fought for — and which almost certainly would not have happened without him — claimed the scalps of two PMs, David Cameron and Theresa May, and catapulted a third, Boris Johnson, into Downing Street.
Political scientist Philip Cowley places Farage among the five ‘most significant’ politicians of the past 50 years, alongside Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Nicola Sturgeon and Johnson.
When, in March last year, Farage announced he was stepping down from politics, commentator Matthew Goodwin likened him to Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, for paving the way for Brexit.
His public guise is as the populist, cheeky-chappy, celebrity showman. But behind the scenes there is a darker side to him. Egotism, arrogance, duplicity, dishonesty and hypocrisy all are attributes he has in abundance (like many politicians, it has to be said, not least our present prime minister).
He is also a deeply divisive figure, managing to fall out over the years with many of those who were committed to the same cause as him.
Against this, among his many qualities are his extraordinary energy and stamina, and his ability both to wake up unimpaired by an evening of heavy drinking and to survive on very little sleep.
Above all, he is one of the great communicators of our age, with a rare instinctive feel for public opinion. With the exception of Boris Johnson, nobody in modern politics has his ability to arouse and inflame an audience, whether on a public platform, in a parliamentary chamber or on radio and TV.
He positively relishes dialogue and banter with people on the street. He is comfortable with all classes, at home in a Yorkshire miners’ club as much as a Pall Mall gentlemen’s club.
When, in March last year, Farage announced he was stepping down from politics, commentator Matthew Goodwin likened him to Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, for paving the way for Brexit
Despite the accusations of racism often made against him (which he denies), he is relaxed among ethnic minorities, especially older black people.
He matches Blair for his instinctive understanding of public attitudes and their shifting sands. In the words of his media adviser, ‘he speaks fluent human’. Yet if it hadn’t been for a boozy night back in October 1990, we might never have heard of Nigel Farage.
In those days a boisterous ‘loadsamoney’ metals trader in the City of London, he was enjoying his usual Friday drinking session with chums at the Corney & Barrow wine bar on Old Broad Street when important news broke.
Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Chancellor, John Major, had decided to take the pound sterling into the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), tying European currencies to each other and limiting fluctuations in exchange rates. The decision received almost universal approval in Britain’s political and economic circles, as a step towards joining the single currency planned by leaders of the European Economic Community (EEC), as the EU was then.
Farage was incandescent. ‘I spent the rest of the evening fuming and spitting. This cannot work! This will be a disaster! This Major man is certifiable.’
Until that point he had barely dipped a toe into political waters. Officially he was still a member of the Conservative Party — but in the recent elections to the European Parliament he had actually voted for the Green Party because, like most Left-leaning parties at that time, they were hostile to the EEC, seeing it as too centralised and dominated by big business.
He recalls: ‘I was striking out on my own, no longer finding refuge in the compromises offered by conventional parties.’
It was in this spirit that he went along to a public meeting at which Dr Alan Sked, an academic from the London School of Economics, proposed setting up a new party, to lead Britain out of the EEC. Farage cheered loudly and joined the crowd around him to learn more. He had found his cause.
A year later, Farage canvassed for Sked’s Anti-Federalist League (AFL) in a parliamentary by-election.
Sked polled a paltry 601 votes but Farage was hooked. He loved the selling and persuasion involved in the campaign, trying to charm and convince total strangers on the street. Politics would now be his life.
The following year, the AFL morphed into the UK Independence Party — soon shortened to Ukip — and 29-year-old Farage joined its national executive. He then stood for the party in Hampshire in the next elections to the European Parliament.
Farage was not only the best speaker the party had but happy to campaign night after night, with long car journeys to each location. For many local activists, he was the only senior Ukip figure they had ever met. He was making a name for himself
He lost. But with 5.4 per cent of the votes, his was Ukip’s best result. In his speech at the count, he declared: ‘There’s a new party in British politics.’
He set out to be its public face and its star speaker, building grassroots support in village halls, upstairs rooms in pubs, sitting rooms — anywhere he could find people to listen to his message. In his forthright way, he would tell them: ‘We seek an amicable divorce from the political EU and its replacement with a genuine free trade agreement, which is what we thought we signed up to in the first place!’
Pretty soon, Farage was effectively running the party, according to journalist Richard North, who was involved in the early Ukip.
‘Sked was an academic, very gentle. He didn’t have street cred; he wasn’t a thug in the way Farage was. You needed somebody out there to bruise people, beat them up, get them motivated.’
Farage was not only the best speaker the party had but happy to campaign night after night, with long car journeys to each location. For many local activists, he was the only senior Ukip figure they had ever met. He was making a name for himself.
He worked hard but he also played hard. Sked rebuked him for coming drunk to a meeting and for taking colleagues to a Mayfair strip club ‘full of hatchet-faced women wearing nothing but G-strings’. Sked was horrified to see ‘Nigel’s head wedged between one woman’s breasts’.
Not surprisingly, Sked and Farage, chalk and cheese, were on a collision course.
The trouble with Sked, according to Farage, was that he left audiences impressed rather than moved. ‘He saw the theoretical dangers of the EU but could not make them real to his listeners.’
In time, a disgruntled and outmanoeuvred Sked would resign and for ten years, on and off, Farage would be party leader — one whose style of leadership was controversial. He acted like a one-man band, brooking no dissent.
One rival who clashed with him said: ‘Nigel doesn’t take criticism very well. He would just walk out in a fit of temper. People of talent and ability would be purged.’ Typical adjectives used of him were ‘snarling’ and ‘thin-skinned’.
Former Tory MP Neil Hamilton, who joined Ukip and fell out with Farage, described him as ‘a sociopathic narcissist with a messiah complex. He has to be the centre of attention at all times and has to be able to impose his will. Anybody who might disagree is not wanted on the voyage’.
When in Strasbourg, he would be on the phone all the time to England, organising Ukip — and running up a massive phone bill that was paid by . . . the European Parliament
Farage never held back from abusing colleagues if they didn’t come up to scratch. In one article, he dismissed the party’s national executive committee as ‘the lowest grade of people I have ever met . . . total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksacks’.
No party leader in modern British history can have left so many enemies and casualties among his colleagues. Dictators worldwide would have admired his ruthlessness and ability to show no mercy in suppressing dissent and purging potential rivals.
Ironically, the odds are that Ukip would have remained a fringe party going nowhere, had it not been for Tony Blair.
His very pro-EU Labour government, in its determination to adopt a more positive approach to European integration, proposed that, from 1999, elections for the European Parliament would be conducted under proportional representation, in line with most other EU states.
Replacing first-past-the-post with percentage of votes let Ukip in. It received 144,514 votes in the South-East of England constituency — 9.7 per cent — and Farage was elected eighth of the region’s 11 MEPs. He was one of just three Ukip members but a new party had emerged on the political stage, one that questioned the very existence of the EU and Britain’s involvement in it.
After his election, Farage gave his first live TV interview. He was asked: ‘Next week you’ll be off to the European Parliament, to a never-ending round of lunches, dinners, champagne receptions. Do you think you’ll become corrupted by the lifestyle?’
Ironically, the odds are that Ukip would have remained a fringe party going nowhere, had it not been for Tony Blair
‘No,’ he responded with a grin. ‘I’ve always lived like that.’
That bombast deserted him for his maiden speech in the Strasbourg Parliament. It was very dull and he looked nervous as he read carefully from notes.
But by his fourth speech he was finding his voice, telling fellow MEPs: ‘While the UK has obeyed EU law to the letter, other countries are running a cart and horse through the rulebook. The “level playing field” is about as level as the decks of the Titanic after it hit the iceberg!’
Yet apart from speeches and the regular votes, Farage took virtually no part in other parliamentary proceedings, having calculated that his time was better spent in Britain, ‘using EU money and spurious prestige,’ as he put it, ‘to tell everyone the truth about this vast, hugely expensive Hall of Mirrors.’
When in Strasbourg, he would be on the phone all the time to England, organising Ukip — and running up a massive phone bill that was paid by . . . the European Parliament.
Strasbourg also brought out his bad-boy side.
Richard North, who worked for him there, recalled: ‘He treated Strasbourg as one long booze-up. Visits there would always involve a big dinner late in the evening at a smart restaurant.
Farage made his first appearance on BBC1’s Question Time in 2000 and since then has appeared more frequently than anyone else in politics
‘We wouldn’t leave till midnight, and he’d then go off to a bar and drink till three in the morning, sometimes not even going to bed. He’d miss appointments in the morning after drinking all night. It was thoroughly irresponsible.’
Eventually, North gave up. In his resignation letter he wrote: ‘I am not in the business of being his nanny. I am not prepared to be available to pour him into a taxi when he was so blind drunk he could no longer stand.’
But back in the UK, Farage never took his eye off his mission to detach Britain from the EU. He saw his priority as grabbing headlines, taking the view that with an insurgent party, the most important thing was making people aware of your existence and what you stood for.
With the letters ‘MEP’ after his name, the media had to take him seriously, and he was suddenly in demand for broadcast interviews, even though, as one of his aides put it, ‘they hate to see an interloper stir up their murky pond’.
Farage made his first appearance on BBC1’s Question Time in 2000 and since then has appeared more frequently than anyone else in politics.
Articulate, quick on his feet, controversial, funny, self-deprecating and often outrageous, he represented a view that, thanks to him, was slowly gaining ground among the British public, if not yet with the political class — that Britain should leave the EU.
Almost any publicity was worthwhile if it helped get the party noticed. For the 2005 General Election, Farage unveiled a drip-drip of celebrity endorsements: actors Joan Collins and Edward Fox; racing driver Stirling Moss; TV astronomer Patrick Moore; cricketer Geoff Boycott.
And he kept the message simple. On 1,800 advertising billboards, a simple logo just said NO, with the letter ‘O’ in the form of the EU’s own ring of 12 stars.
Almost any publicity was worthwhile if it helped get the party noticed. For the 2005 General Election, Farage unveiled a drip-drip of celebrity endorsements: actors Joan Collins and Edward Fox; racing driver Stirling Moss; TV astronomer Patrick Moore; cricketer Geoff Boycott
Later, the advent of YouTube would give him a huge new audience. Its strict time limits on contributions forced him to speak in punchy, pithy soundbites, which were ideal for television coverage and for the new world that was opening up politics through Twitter and Facebook.
But for all his self-publicity, Farage was still failing to break into mainstream British politics. By 2010, Ukip was still quite a minor party and leaving the EU was still a fringe cause.
A speech he gave in the European Parliament changed that.
EU leaders had just chosen the first ever president of the European Council, a new position that went to the Belgian prime minister, Herman Van Rompuy. Farage went on the attack.
‘I don’t want to be rude,’ he began, before being just that. ‘You have the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk,’ he told Van Rompuy.
‘Who are you? I’d never heard of you. Nobody in Europe had ever heard of you. I speak on behalf of the majority of the British people in saying we don’t want you, and the sooner you’re put out to grass the better.’
His words were met with boos but he pressed on, accusing the Belgian of being ‘the quiet assassin of European democracy and of the European nation states’.
Farage had struck a chord. His 90-second speech was widely broadcast round Europe and got millions of hits on YouTube.
Outraged Europhiles demanded an apology but, with typical bravado, he responded: ‘The only people I am going to apologise to are bank clerks.’
Farage had become a big beast within the European Parliament, deeply unpopular with most MEPs but a formidable operator and performer. And it wouldn’t be long before his party made big strides with the British electorate.
Farage had become a big beast within the European Parliament, deeply unpopular with most MEPs but a formidable operator and performer. And it wouldn’t be long before his party made big strides with the British electorate
In the 2014 European elections, Ukip topped the polls with 24 seats and 26.6 per cent of the vote. It was the first time all the traditional parties had been beaten by an outsider. In the local elections, held on the same day, Ukip got 17 per cent and picked up 163 council seats.
There was success of a kind, too, in the 2015 General Election. Farage stood for election as an MP — his seventh attempt — and was beaten in South Thanet by the Tory candidate by just 2,800 votes. But nationwide, Ukip polled nearly four million votes, making it Britain’s third biggest party.
It was easily the best performance in modern history by any party outside the main three. Yet despite coming second in 120 constituencies, it had won just one actual seat, Clacton. Even so, it brought the breakthrough for Ukip and for Farage.
Euroscepticism had been growing rapidly within Tory ranks and to lance the boil, David Cameron had promised an In-Out referendum to settle the matter once and for all. When the Tories unexpectedly won a parliamentary majority, ending their coalition with the Lib Dems, it was a manifesto pledge from which Cameron could not row back.
‘This was the real clincher,’ Farage said. ‘I’d spent all these years looking like the Patron Saint of Lost Causes but now we had finally got the referendum.’
Leading Brexiteer Daniel Hannan acknowledges Farage’s role. ‘Had he not been prepared to put hours of his life into fruitless arguments with some very nutty people to try to weld that inchoate force into an electoral machine, I’m not sure there would have been a referendum.’
In that referendum campaign, Farage was forced to take more of a back seat than he felt he deserved. Even erstwhile supporters felt his abrasive manner would alienate rather than attract.
Tycoon Stuart Wheeler, who had backed Ukip with his millions, declared: ‘To win the referendum we must have 50 per cent. In a battle which will be more important to this country even than any general election, we need a quiet, well-reasoned approach to convince the waverers.’
‘Quiet’ had never been a description of Nigel Farage.
Then, as two increasingly hostile camps formed among the Eurosceptics, he was outmanoeuvred by a group led by Dominic Cummings for the official leadership of the Leave campaign. Farage believed immigration should be at the heart of the campaign; Cummings argued that this would deter the 30 per cent of undecided voters. Farage was unyielding that he should be the public face of the campaign.
In the end, the Electoral Commission chose Cummings’s Vote Leave organisation — whose list of big names included six Cabinet ministers and London Mayor Boris Johnson — as the official voice of Leave.
At a lunch on referendum day, he chain-smoked and kept repeating: ‘We’re going to lose. I can feel it in my waters.’ After the polls closed, he issued a statement that ‘it looks like Remain will edge it’
Farage spent most of the two-month campaign touring England and Wales in Ukip’s purple bus, the Flying Aubergine. Playing the theme tune from The Great Escape, it rolled up in communities where Farage held open-air events and rallies. But the attention of the media was largely elsewhere.
In the final few days, he seemed sure Leave was heading for defeat, though a private poll of 10,000 people suggested otherwise. He was on edge, recalled his millionaire backer Arron Banks. ‘He’s been building up to this moment for the last 25 years of his life.’
At a lunch on referendum day, he chain-smoked and kept repeating: ‘We’re going to lose. I can feel it in my waters.’ After the polls closed, he issued a statement that ‘it looks like Remain will edge it’.
He was wrong.
As the early results came in, he tweeted: ‘I now dare to dream that the dawn is coming up on an independent United Kingdom.’ It was, he said, ‘a victory for ordinary people, decent people’.
Ever since, there has been debate about who most deserved credit for achieving the Brexit vote. Most focus was on Dominic Cummings.
However, without Farage and pressure from the gradual growth of Ukip over its first 20 years, Cameron would never have felt the need to promise the referendum in the first place.
Five days after the Brexit victory, Farage went to Strasbourg and addressed the European Parliament. ‘Mr President,’ he said, ‘isn’t it funny? When I came here 17 years ago and said I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the EU, you all laughed at me. Well, you’re not laughing now, are you?’
On Brexit Day itself, at the end of January 2020, Farage joined a jubilant crowd in London’s Parliament Square.
As the hand on Big Ben moved towards the moment of departure, Farage, wearing a Union Jack tie, told them: ‘We did it. We transformed the landscape of our country. The reason we are here tonight is because Westminster became utterly detached from ordinary people in this country. The people have beaten the Establishment. And we’re never, ever going back. This is the greatest moment in the modern history of our great nation.’
A few hundred yards away, the ‘official’ Leave forces, led by Prime Minister Johnson, celebrated at 10 Downing Street. Nigel Farage — the man who for years was a lone voice pressing for Britain to disentangle itself from the European monolith — was not invited.
- Adapted from One Party After Another, by Michael Crick, published by Simon & Schuster, £25. © Michael Crick 2022. To order a copy for £22.50, go to www.mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Promotional price valid until 13/02/2022.