Crick shows how Farage forced the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done

4 Mar

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage by Michael Crick

There is a marvellous insolence about Michael Crick. Nobody questions the fleeing politician better than he does – see this highly enjoyable compilation of some of his greatest moments as a television reporter.

Crick adds insult to injury by sounding polite. He conveys an innocent desire to get the answer to some inquiry about which the politician, hastening along the pavement or through the conference centre, is too embarrassed to speak.

The vain attempt by Crick’s quarry to look at ease, the unconvincing pretence of deafness, the search for some lavatory in which to hide, gratify our desire to see our politicians taken down a peg or two.

And that is something which Nigel Farage, the subject of Michael Crick’s latest biography, is very good at too. Brexit felt so satisfying to its supporters because it was a way of confounding the prosy, prating liberals who thought they could tell everyone else what to think and how to vote.

Crick begins with high drama:

“Sweating heavily, the pilot put out a Mayday call. His passenger awaited his fate, having decided there was nothing he could do, or say, to help. He considered calling or texting his ‘nearest and dearest’, but didn’t see how that would assist much either. He thought about lighting a cigarette, but then remembered how a lot of fuel might be spilt if the aircraft had to crash-land.

“Which it soon did.”

That was Farage on election day in 2010, when he was standing against John Bercow in Buckingham, and went up in a small plane towing a banner which bore the words:

VOTE FOR YOUR COUNTRY – VOTE UKIP

The banner got wrapped round the rudder, the plane crashed, and Farage and the pilot, Justin Adams, were extremely lucky to survive.

Adams did not remain lucky. His mental health deteriorated, his business and marriage collapsed, and he threatened to kill Farage, whom he blamed for ruining his life.

In 2013, Adams committed suicide. It is characteristic of Crick that he relates these unhappy events in some detail.

Crick writes of Farage:

“This is the extraordinary story of one of the most important politicians of modern British history; he’s been a more significant player than most leaders of the traditional political parties, more influential than quite a few prime ministers. Nigel Farage is the only man ever to have won a nationwide election as leader of an insurgent party. And he managed that astonishing feat twice, five years apart, leading two different parties. Yet Farage has never been elected to the House of Commons, never served as a government minister and will almost certainly never achieve either role. He will go down as one of the great political communicators of our age, a man with a rare instinctive feel for public opinion, yet someone who managed to fall out with many of those, in his parties and beyond, who were committed to the very same cause.”

All this is true. I am well aware that Farage is still alive, still communicating via GB News, and that politics is full of surprises. But for the purposes of this review I shall follow Crick and assume that Farage’s political career is probably over.

Why was Farage such a success, and such a failure? The success sprang from his ability to attack the Establishment prigs from the opposite direction to the one they expected.

They assumed that any young firebrand would be even more progressive, even more pro-European, even more susceptible to every bit of fashionable claptrap than they were themselves.

Instead of which, Farage came before the British public as a City trader, a man in a pin-striped suit and a covert coat, with an unconcealed love of golf, cricket, fishing and military history, and at the end of a hard morning on the London Metal Exchange utterly delighted to go for a proper, old-fashioned lunch with any amount to drink. According to Crick,

“The favourite venue was the eighteenth-century Simpson’s Tavern, in Ball Court, a narrow alleyway off Cornhill, which served traditional steaks and chops, and spotted dick for pudding, and which boasts of being ‘the oldest chophouse in London’.”

Crick reminds us that the City in the 1980s was a mixture of public-school types such as Farage and barrow-boys from Essex. Farage himself has written:

“I liked the mix in the City – nobody cared how posh or how rough you were; you were rated on how much money you could make.”

Huge energy, high-stakes risk-taking, the go-for-it spirit and a complete absence of cant: these were useful qualities if you wanted to go into politics, where many of the established figures suffered from low energy, risk aversion, the safety-first spirit and an incurable addiction to spouting high-minded platitudes, usually in order to conceal even from themselves their reluctance to get to grips with things.

Just as he had plunged straight into the City without first having his head filled with nonsense at university, so Farage plunged straight into politics, and discovered what worked, and what didn’t, by actually having a go, indeed by having many goes, during none of which did he manage to gain election to the House of Commons, for he provoked enmity as well as adulation.

There is far too much in Crick’s book – far too much for this reader, at least – about the details of UKIP’s internal intrigues. David Cameron sought, as Conservative leader from 2005 and Prime Minister from 2010, to finesse the European issue, and to get his MPs to stop banging on about it.

Farage at the head of UKIP prospered in this empty space; forced Cameron to concede, in the Bloomberg speech of January 2013, a referendum on EU membership; and continued ten weeks later to advance in the local elections.

Here’s what a certain newspaper columnist wrote just before those elections in The Daily Telegraph:

“Take Nigel Farage, whom I met years ago and who has always struck me as a rather engaging geezer. He’s anti-pomposity, he’s anti-political correctness, he’s anti-loony Brussels regulation. He’s in favour of low tax, and sticking up for small business, and sticking up for Britain.

“We Tories look at him – with his pint and cigar and sense of humour – and we instinctively recognise someone who is fundamentally indistinguishable from us. He’s a blooming Conservative, for heaven’s sake; and yet he’s in our constituencies, wooing our audiences, nicking our votes, and threatening to put our councillors out of office. We feel the panic of a man confronted by his Doppelgänger…

“Rather than bashing UKIP, I reckon Tories should be comforted by their rise – because the real story is surely that these voters are not turning to the one party that is meant to be providing the official opposition. The rise of UKIP confirms a) that a Tory approach is broadly popular and b) that in the middle of a parliament, after long years of recession, and with growth more or less flat, the Labour Party is going precisely nowhere.”

Crick quotes part of this, which impelled me to reread the whole piece, in which one finds Boris Johnson – at this time Mayor of London – indicating how under a new leader – who will need to be a showman and a risk-taker as unabashedly old-fashioned in manner as Farage – the Conservatives can win back those UKIP voters.

The second to last chapter in this 550-page book is called Nigel versus Boris. We have reached the showdown between the showmen.

Farage, who has an unfortunate tendency to fall out with his allies, is by now leading a specially created vehicle, the Brexit Party, which in the European elections of May 2019 took 30.5 per cent of the vote, while the Conservatives fell to fifth place (the Greens were fourth) with a derisory 8.8 per cent.

This was the death zone for the Tories. May announced she was stepping down, and Johnson won the leadership race because he was the only candidate who could be relied on to beat Farage.

“The moment Boris was elected our support started to slip away,” the then Chairman of the Brexit Party, Richard Tice, told Crick.

Johnson had reunited the Tory tribe, an achievement overlooked by those who focus on his ability to woo Labour voters.

By November 2019 the Brexit Party was pitifully weak, and as a source at the centre of the party told Crick at the time:

“Now the whole house is coming down; now the recriminations begin; now it’s an absolute bloodbath. It is like in Downfall where Hitler is dismissing his generals…It’s total chaos.The Tories have absolutely outmanoeuvred Tice and Farage. It’s over.”

On 11 November 2019 Farage was forced to announce the withdrawal of the Brexit Party’s candidates in all 317 seats won by the Conservatives in 2017. In the general election held on 12 December Farage’s party got a derisory two per cent of the vote.

What a reversal of fortune! Crick’s admirable account shows us a man who was brilliant at disrupting, but no good at co-operating, and whose greatest achievement may well have been to force the Conservative Party to pull itself together and get Brexit done.