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Nigel Farage's Brexit Party is bad news for the Conservatives

Nigel Farage. Photo/Getty Images

The architect of Brexit continues to stir the pot with appeals to Britons’ base instincts.

Every political culture contains a character who defies explanation. In Britain, that character is Nigel Farage, a name that sounds as if it’s been invented by a comic novelist. Farage is the man who almost single-handedly brought about the EU referendum when, as the then leader of the UK Independence Party (Ukip), he gained sufficient momentum to spook the then Conservative prime minister, David Cameron, into his fateful electoral gamble.

With his baggy blazers and bawdy laughter, Farage looks like the secretary of a suburban golf club who has had rather too long a lunch. In other words, he’s easy to underestimate, but difficult to overlook.

For 20 years, he’s been an MEP, one of the handsomely paid representatives in the European Parliament that he derides, and has consistently campaigned for Britain to leave – a well-stuffed turkey who’s spent two decades voting for Christmas. Then he got his wish, Britain voted for Brexit, and he resigned as Ukip leader, though not as an MEP, continuing to pick up his hefty wage and generous expenses.

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But with Britain divorced yet refusing to leave the marital home, Farage has once again made a move to obtain his obsolescence. He has recently set up a new party, the Brexit Party, and almost overnight it’s leading the polls for one of the most bizarre elections in living memory – for the European Parliament.

Yes, Britain is participating in an election for an entity that it was supposed to have already left, and the party that is most popular is the one that wants out right now without a deal. And, bear in mind, the only reason the country is in this tortured position in the first place is that the Conservative Party was desperate to snuff out the threat of Farage.

I sat in an auditorium recently in Nottingham, watching Farage whipping his most loyal supporters into a frenzy – almost a health and safety concern given that the majority of them would regard their hero, at 55, as a young man. To say that Brexit Party members are a bunch of grey hairs is to neglect the significant number who have lost their hair.

If they represent Britain’s political future, then it will be a journey into the past, filled with nostalgia for an innocent time that never existed but that grows brighter in fading memories with each passing year. Whereas all the other parties have a multiplicity of policies, the Brexit Party so far has only one: leave.

It’s a simple message for people who are tired of complex debates. And Farage is a master of simplicity. What he lacks in sartorial style, he makes up for in rhetorical clarity. That’s the depressing thing about populism when it’s done effectively – it’s popular. Not just with the over-sixties, but also with that growing number of people who believe conventional politicians are useless, unrepresentative or both.

At the rally, Farage promised that the Brexit Party was going to take part in the next general election, whenever that might be. This is bad news for the Conservatives, but most of all it’s bad news for Britain.

Farage is a friend of Donald Trump, he’s closely linked to a furtive and controversial businessman named Aaron Banks, and because he’s always chuckling, the Brexit Party leader can come across as avuncular or benign. But he is a virtuoso performer on the dog whistle, appealing to the basest instincts without ever quite giving name to them.

This is the terrible, ironic legacy of Cameron’s attempt to neutralise Farage – it’s ended up empowering him far more than either man could have dreamt. And whereas Cameron has gone from view, his bogeyman looms larger by the day.

Andrew Anthony is an Observer feature writer and is married to a New Zealander.

This article was first published in the May 11, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.