If the British establishment really wants to troll Ukip, then I suppose it ought to give Douglas Carswell a knighthood for blocking Nigel Farage’s knighthood.
He says he didn’t, of course, and I don’t see how he could have done. Farage, though, clearly thinks he did, and his wrath about this is the most fun thing to have happened in British politics for ages. He’s furious. His little demons are furious. Too furious, really. ‘This must be about something else,’ I kept thinking. ‘Deep down, it must be. But what?’
According to the great smoked kipper himself, in the Daily Telegraph on Tuesday, Carswell has been a thorn in the side of Ukip ever since he had the temerity to join it and then win two Westminster elections on its behalf. It didn’t mention knighthoods once, that article, although I’d like to think Farage winced forlornly at the byline. Instead it raged about Carswell’s closeness to Vote Leave, which, reckons Farage, directly contributed to that group becoming the official Out campaign in the referendum, rather than Ukip’s preferred Leave.eu or Grassroots Out. Remember that? Vaguely? He does.
Meanwhile, the millionaire Arron Banks, who somehow manages to be in Farage’s pocket even though Farage is in his, like some sort of grotesque contortionist act, was sounding off about Carswell in the Daily Express. Possibly you missed this because, well, Daily Express, but it was strident stuff. He did mention the knighthood, accused Carswell of sabotaging it and said he should be kicked out of the party as a result. Banks wants to be made party chairman, whereupon he will kick Carswell out, or else he plans to run against Carswell in his Clacton constituency at the next election in a great Ukip vs Ukip showdown. That’s how cross he is. ‘These dullards aren’t bringing in Tory votes,’ he said. This echoed Farage’s own remarks a few days before, that Nuttall had lost in Stoke because he was too centrist. ‘We failed to get tactical votes from the Conservatives,’ he said.
Now, mere weeks ago, it was Labour voters who were supposed to be ripe for Ukip plucking. This, supposedly, was because they were pro-Brexit, protectionist and anti-immigration, while Labour had become a party only for people who eat muesli and drive electric cars around the North Circular. This was the consensus in Westminster generally and, as far as one can make out, Ukip agreed with it. Just last week, though, the political scientist John Curtice pointed out something which ought to have been obvious for ages, which was that although most Labour constituencies did indeed vote Brexit, the majority of Labour voters in those constituencies did not. Or to put that another way, the whole strategy was bollocks. Whereupon, bang on time, along came the Stoke by-election to prove the point.
But it’s not wholly clear why any of this should have been Douglas Carswell’s fault. Liberal, anti-protectionist and actively pro-immigration, he’d hardly have been the poster boy for those mythical old Labour Brexiteers, even if they had existed, which they didn’t. So it seems to me that Banks and Farage, in seeking to pin the blame for their own massive miscalculation on him, are angry with him about something else altogether.
Which is where we come back to the knighthood. It is also where we come back to their ongoing resentment about not being the official Leave campaign, even though it was almost a year ago, for God’s sake, and they won anyway. And it is also where we should bring in Carswell’s first offence against the Ukip hierarchy, which came about two years ago when he declined the ‘Short money’ that opposition parties get to finance their operations, thereby doing Farage out of the sort of swanky Westminster base that all the other parties enjoy. Essentially, the problem with Carswell is that he truly believes all the anti-establishment stuff. He really does think that Ukip should be a party apart. Whereas the rest of them don’t. They only pretend.
You can see it with Farage in America. There he is, this man who failed seven times to even become an MP, going on talk shows and basking in the vague presumption over there that he’s probably, like, the Limey prime minister or something. At Trump’s elbow, he gets to consider himself a statesman, a potential ambassador. Likewise Banks, a man who was once so piqued when William Hague didn’t remember his name that he immediately gave Ukip a million quid. These people do not want to smash the establishment. They want to be the establishment. This is why they keep fighting the referendum even though the referendum is won, because they bristle with resentment at their lack of recognition, the lack of a ticker-tape parade for having won it. This is also, I suppose, why Paul Nuttall wears tweed, even though it makes him look like a skinhead Rupert Bear.
These people don’t hate the establishment. They only hate the fact that they aren’t quite in it. They want respect. They want to be grandees, with clubs in St James’s, House of Lords stationery and invitations to the royal garden party. They want, damn it, a goddamn knighthood. I bet they thought they’d have all these things by now. And yet somehow still they don’t. Bummer, eh?
A model ex-PM
Speaking of grandees, Sir John Major does political intervention just right, doesn’t he? Never mind what he actually says. Once a year, twice max. Lob in a perfectly prepared hand grenade, wave and get the hell out. None of that terrible neediness of Tony Blair, still so stricken that he’s not in office. No children will cry, nor dogs howl, as they might at the biannual haphazard sight of Gordon Brown. Major is never hysterical, and never cheap, and he always disappears again within 24 hours. Precisely how an ex-prime minister ought to be. David Cameron, wherever he is, should be taking notes.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.