1 August 2019

The worst thing for a tub-thumper like Farage? Giving him what he wants

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We need to talk about Nigel I’m afraid, even if you would very much prefer not to. There is, after all, a compelling case to be made that he is the most consequential politician of our time. When Donald Trump talks of Nigel Farage as “Mr Brexit” he is not entirely wrong. No Farage; no Ukip. No Ukip; no Brexit.

And this leads, of course, to our current position: no Brexit, no Conservative government. More than anything else this explains the “do or die” attitude Boris Johnson has taken to leaving the EU by Halloween. Like most of his colleagues he recognises that failing to “do” risks a repeat of the disastrous European elections and a fresh Tory annihilation. Those elections, as much as anything else, persuaded Tory MPs to ignore their instincts and trust Johnson with power. Boris Johnson is in Downing Street, but Nigel Farage put him there.

So it is no wonder that Conservative minds are preoccupied with seeing off the threat posed by the Brexit party. Self-preservation, that greatest of all Tory instincts, demands as much. Achieving Brexit – any kind of Brexit but, ideally, the harder the better – should be enough to reduce the Brexit Party to little more than rump status. It would cease to have a significant purpose. What, in the end, would be the point of it? Farage himself promised that it would be, in essence, a single-issue party dedicated to a single proposition: holding Tory feet to the Brexit fire.

The purest Brexiteers, of course, can never be happy. Temperamentally they are suspicious of sunshine. They are, in this respect, close cousins to the dourest Ulster Unionists, forever afraid that they will be sold out. Betrayal is always on their minds and so much so that you are sometimes tempted to suspect this is what they secretly crave.

How else is one supposed to interpret Farage’s latest chuntering that Dominic Cummings, who only ran the official Leave campaign, is not a “true believer” in Brexit? The prime minister’s new svengali secretly wishes Britain to remain “bound to the EU”. This is a theory that at least has the merit of novelty.

There is no satisfying some people and, just as obviously, there is no appeasing some of them either. Successive Conservative prime ministers have paid the Danegeld demanded by the eurosceptic wing of the party and then been surprised that doing so does not get rid of the Dane. The latest iteration of this comes – with thudding predictability – from Mark Francois who, standing on his tippiest tip-toes, declares that even if the hated Irish Backstop is miraculously removed from the Withdrawal Agreement as many as 60 Tory MPs remain determined to vote against it. No deal is a pure deal and purity is the essence of the matter.

Likewise, Farage has slid easily from trenchant declarations that a triumphant deal would be child’s play to demanding nothing except no deal at all. This, you sense again, is another means by which he can maintain his relevance. If that displeases Dominic Cummings then so much the better. According to Farage, Cummings thinks “we’re all cretins and members of the lower order”. To be fair, Cummings thinks that about most people so perhaps Farage shouldn’t take it quite so personally.

Perhaps the worst thing you can do to a populist tub-thumper, however, is give him what he wants. For once he has it, what may he thump his tubs about? That is the predicament in which Farage finds himself. That in turn leads to the Brexit Party’s potential as a spoiling force in the next phase of British politics. The party does not need to win any seats – though it might in fact do so – to have a dramatic impact upon the next election. Putting Corbyn into Downing Street might risk Brexit but it would keep Farage on Question Time.

Even if a number of Brexit Party MPs were elected, however, what could they do? As the SNP and countless other parties have discovered, life on the opposition benches as a minor party is often a pretty lonely affair.

Paradoxically, then, the interests of Brexit’s truest believers overlap with those of the Tory party itself. Better to be inside the tent than outside it, in this instance at least. Farage is another matter, however. For him the greatest future is as the forsaken prophet and sole true believer in the true, lost, Brexit.

But in one sense what happens to Farage and his followers matters little. Once upon a time David Cameron denounced Ukip as a collection of “fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists, mostly”. It is now unfashionable to suggest Cameron was more right than wrong about this but, nevertheless, he was. The Conservative Party, however, is so spooked by Farage and the Brexit Party that it is determined to meet them more than half-way.

This is not the Tory party absorbing the Brexit party; it is the Brexit Party taking over the Conservative Party. A right-wing militancy that betrays the fundamental risk-averse precepts of traditional Toryism for a form of politics less interested in policy than in fighting a culture war.

In that respect, Farage might not have much of a future himself but the prospects for Farageism look significantly healthier. A stronger Tory party would have confronted and extirpated this menace years ago; instead it has allowed it to grow, assisted on its way by the evident, if sneaking, suspicion many Tory MPs have that perhaps Farage, while uncouth, might actually be kind of right.

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Alex Massie is a political commentator