Just when those British campaigners who want to leave the European Union thought that the debate might be turning in their favour, up pops Nigel Farage to remind the voters that he exists.
The UK’s in-out referendum, due before the end of 2017, will be won and lost in the centre-ground, and will turn on the views of undecided, middle-ground voters. Nigel Farage is about the worst person possible to try and persuade them of anything. Very few of them can stand the man. They have had years of seeing his grinning face on the television, his hand clutching a pint as with wearying predictability he says the unsayable (it’s usually the unsayable for a good reason.) However unfair it is, these voters do not want to be tainted by association.
A new poll by Survation for the think tank British Future confirms his toxicity to the Out cause, just as Farage launches his own Out campaign because the better-funded and more professional mainstream outfit has said no thank you to a partnership with UKIP.
Talk to anyone who has engaged with large numbers of swing voters, or focus grouped it, or studied public opinion, and they will confirm it. Lots of undecided and potential Out voters shudder when they hear Ukippers talk about migrants, even if they share the broad analysis that borders should be controlled and agree the population is being increased too quickly. Being “a bit Ukippy” is to be the saloon bar bore or golf club cretin annoying the other members in the clubhouse who want to play golf and then have a quiet drink unimpeded by the obsessive man talking about Bulgarians and telling his “jokes”.
Farage can mump and moan about this all he likes, and say he has played a pivotal role in securing a referendum that the Tory high command never wanted to allow. He can explain that he is likeable, amusing company, which he can be. He can blame the way the media has caricatured him and say that, on the contrary, he’s always greeted by shouts of “Go on, Nige!” everywhere he goes. But he is confusing notoriety with popularity and should understand that he is a disaster for the cause he claims to represent. That is why more sensible people in his party tried to get him to stick to his decision to resign after the election. A new leader such as Suzanne Evans – bright, personable, untainted – could have repositioned UKIP, but Farage would not have it. He unresigned and here he is.
Ukippers seem incapable of getting their heads round this, but then it is clear that UKIP is an echo chamber. The disciples are in denial, just as Corbynistas confuse packed meetings of leftie activists with public opinion and some Scottish Nationalists struggle with the idea that a majority of Scots disagree with their separatist position. The foot soldiers in the purple people’s army (UKIP) talk as though they represent a silent majority that is now being awoken. It should be plain that they represent, as the general election and polls show, about 12-15% of opinion in the UK, whereas the Outers need 50.1% and the votes of many people who want nothing to do with UKIP.
The best option the Out campaign has, if Farage will not shut up, is for moderate Eurosceptics to kidnap him and hold him hostage at a secret location. Or, he could arrange a lock-in for two years at one of his favourite pubs.
If he is not kidnapped, and does not turn down the volume, the attention he will attract from the media during the campaign (because he’s colourful and good copy) will do material harm to the Out campaign. That campaign faces a difficult enough challenge in blending an explanation of how broken the EU is with a reassuring message about the economic possibilities of changing the relationship with Europe. Farage does not help them do that one bit.