Nigel Farage is relishing the chance to sow discord in Tory ranks
Nigel Farage looks round with mild disgust at the antiseptic Westminster restaurant in which we’re meant to be having lunch. The leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party tilts his head back and sniffs the air theatrically, then whispers, ‘Why don’t we just go to the pub?’
We head off down the street. Farage is in a pinstripe suit with a Ukip golf umbrella under his arm. He puffs on a cigarette, his gait — half-jovial, half-military — straight out of an Ealing comedy. When we get to the pub, he greets his pint of bitter with an enthusiastic cry of ‘First of the week!’ before taking a lip-smacking gulp. One can see why the professional political classes find it so hard to take Nigel Farage seriously.
But they can’t ignore him any more. Ukip are regularly running ahead of the Liberal Democrats. They averaged 13 per cent in the wards in which they stood in the local elections and one recent poll suggested that more than a quarter of Conservatives would consider voting for them. Their support has more than doubled since the general election two years ago. Is this due to disaffected Tories coming over? ‘Across England as a whole there is no doubt that a good majority of our support has come from Tories, yes,’ he says.
Farage, who survived a plane crash on general election day, is clearly relishing his new lease of political life. He has returned to the leadership of the party, having stood down in 2009, and senses that he is on the point of vindication about the whole European project. ‘The logic of the argument which shows you why the euro didn’t work is in fact the same logical argument as to why the whole blooming thing can’t work in terms of it being a political union.’ He is also dismissive of the idea of renegotiating Britain’s membership of the EU. ‘Who would you renegotiate with? These people are mad, they’re out of control… There is no renegotiation, nothing on offer.’
But Farage has lost one key argument within his party. He has always argued that Ukip shouldn’t stand against those MPs who want to leave the EU; its members now want it to stand everywhere. So he is toying with a solution that at the very least would cause confusion in the Tory ranks, and could trigger chaos: joint Ukip-Tory candidates. His voice dropping, Farage says, ‘What I do know is there are Conservative associations up and down the country who think this could be a way forward.’ Leaning back in his chair, he concludes: ‘All I would say to you is that in terms of co-operation or deals or anything in the future, firstly it’s some way off. But secondly, I can see that there are associations thinking along these lines. If they approach us, would I entertain and contemplate such ideas? Of course I would.’
A few days later, I sampled the opinion of a handful of Conservative MPs on Farage’s offer. One leading Eurosceptic was enthusiastic: ‘The maths says it has got to be done.’ Another, more establishment, backbencher was sceptical, and one close to No. 10 was indignant, suggesting that any MP who went along with this plan would be deselected and any association that endorsed it would be disbanded.
But if Ukip continues to gain in the polls, the offer will become ever more attractive to Conservative candidates. The 1997 election showed that when an electoral deal will enhance their chance of winning a seat, even the most ambitious are prepared to defy the whip. David Cameron knows this well. In that election, he broke with the party bosses for whom he had worked to avoid a challenge from the Eurosceptic Referendum Party.
The Farage plan is to use Ukip to change the Conservative party. As he puts it, ‘Ukip could be the catalyst’ for a ‘reconfiguration of British politics’ that would see a more libertarian party of the right emerge. He’s withering about what Conservative Eurosceptics have achieved, claiming that their only success in 20 years has been to change the parliamentary grouping which the party belongs to in Europe. ‘It’s a waste of time to try to change the Tory party from within — the only way you’ll change it is from without.’
Cameron is Farage’s main target, and one he evidently enjoys attacking: ‘He’s a committed warmist and he wants to build wind turbines all over Britain. He’s so committed to the EU that he doesn’t want to have a referendum in case we give the wrong answer, and he sees no difficulties at all with mass immigration — it’s cheaper chauffeurs and gardeners and nannies. He completely has turned his back on the concept of grammar schools to give people from poorer backgrounds the opportunity to get on.’
In a sign of its broadening agenda, the party no longer says it will disband if Britain quits the EU. ‘We used to be about who governs Britain — we are now about how we want that Britain to be governed,’ Farage pronounces. ‘We are the only party that actually believes in the small state… Many in Ukip see the mission as being a bit like the 1970s — Thatcher winning the election was the start of the project, not the end.’
Farage has an unlikely role model as he tries to turn Ukip into a party that can win Commons seats: the former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown. ‘The Ashdown strategy was brilliant, brilliant. No one noticed what Paddy was doing until he succeeded. They built an electoral machine, they targeted district and county council by-elections where appropriate, they built up a local base.’ This is what Farage wants Ukip to do, saying he’s getting the party ‘ready to fight the local elections next year in a way we’ve never done before’.
Of course, Ukip’s vote doesn’t just come from the European issue: polls show that concern about immigration is behind a lot of its support. Certainly, Farage is prepared to say things that one can’t imagine from other politicians. He bemoans how when he was in Thornton Heath, a suburb of Croydon, recently, ‘virtually every shop was a halal meat shop and you think, this is strange, this is strange’. He adds, ‘Surely the point of people coming — as much as they may practise their own religions and keep in touch with their heritage and their history — they actually come to a country to become part of that country.’ Ukip also taps into a sense of English disillusionment. Farage wants a ‘federal model for the UK which gives a proper English voice and a proper English identity.’
At the end of the interview, I’m left with an odd feeling. Farage comes across as a political amateur. He says things that, as convention has it, a politician should not. But then again that is a huge part of his appeal; his way of standing out from the crowd, of winning over a public increasingly hostile to politics and politicians. One gets the distinct impression that we’re going to hear a lot more about Farage in the coming years and, in particular, about his offer to Tory MPs.