Nigel Farage was never even an MP, but Michael Crick argues convincingly that he is one of the top five most significant politicians of the past half century. Without him we might still be in the EU. All political careers supposedly end in failure, but maybe his didn’t.
As with Boris Johnson (whom he resembles in many ways), Farage’s bluff, bonhomous public image is misleading. He is far more ruthless than he appears. Many of those close to him believe that his air crash on polling day in 2010 changed his personality. He was in a two-seater plane towing a banner saying ‘Vote Ukip’ when the banner wrapped itself round the rudder and the plane nose-dived to the ground. He was lucky not to be killed, and was crying ‘I’m scared’ as he was dragged from the wreckage, but in fact he suffered only fairly minor injuries. David Cameron promptly sent a get-well card, and Farage’s wife and two of his mistresses visited him in hospital. But his old friend Godfrey Bloom told Crick that the air crash permanently altered his character: ‘After 2010, Nigel became totally introverted, and to an extent stopped being fun.’ They have not spoken for years.
Crick worries away at the question of whether Farage is or was a racist, and certainly there are plenty of people who remember him making racist remarks at school. But Farage’s wife Kirsten, who comes across as a totally credible witness, says: ‘If he was a racist I wouldn’t be with him. I don’t think he has got a nasty bone in his body.’ More-over she said that when she already knew he was unfaithful.
He was very unfaithful. A Latvian reporter called Liga Howells told the News of the World in 2006 that he’d picked her up in a pub in Biggin Hill and they made love seven times. ‘He had very good stamina,’ she revealed, but he kept saying ‘Smack me, Miss’, and when he finally went to sleep he snored like a horse. Howells seems to have been a passing fling, but there were longer-standing mistresses, such as Annabelle Fuller and Laure Ferrari, who were well known.
When did Farage get interested in politics? School friends remember him singing ‘The Sun Has Got His Hat On’ when Harold Wilson resigned in 1976, and he was ‘dazzled’ by a speech Enoch Powell gave to the school. But he only got seriously involved when Britain joined the ERM in 1990. He was so enraged he joined a new party, started by Dr Alan Sked, to campaign for EU withdrawal and announced: ‘I was hooked.’
He proved a brilliant campaigner, on the doorstep and in the media, and appeared on Question Time more often than any other politician. When he first became an MEP in 1999 he seemed rather overawed by the European parliament; but in his second term, from 2004, he felt he could really take the place on. And then YouTube arrived and made him a star: his attack on Herman von Rompuy (‘You have the charisma of a damp rag’) got several million hits. Apparently Donald Trump used to watch Farage on YouTube, which is why he welcomed him so warmly to his presidential campaign.
Farage ran Ukip as an autocracy. He liked to enlist celebrities such as Robert Kilroy-Silk or Neil Hamilton, but he quickly fell out with them. It was his party: he owned it. But he had no great affection for its members. He said of his own NEC:
“Many of its current crop are among the lowest grade of people I have ever met... total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksacks.
And although Farage was a great communicator he was a notably bad organiser. Neil Hamilton, who was the Ukip campaign director for a while, said that Farage was ‘actually a toxic influence at getting anything done’. He refused to read emails, let alone send them, and did everything by phone so that there was never a paper trail. He surrounded himself with a security team worthy of Putin and, Hamilton concluded, ‘is a sociopathic narcissist with a messiah complex’.
When the referendum polls closed on 23 June 2016 Farage fully expected Remain to win and even said so on Sky News. His mysterious assistant ‘posh George’ Cottrell, who was an inveterate gambler, started hitting the bookies and made more than £100,000 on the night. But by dawn it was apparent that Leave had won. Farage appeared on TV claiming victory at 7.20 a.m. and Cameron resigned an hour later. The Spectator gave Farage its lifetime achievement award. He set off to the US to campaign for his friend Trump, who invited him to his inauguration. Farage took along Laure Ferrari – which spelt the end of his marriage to Kirsten. She coolly told the press that they had been living separate lives for years.
But, having achieved his great ambition, what was Farage to do next? He’d always said he wanted to be a radio host, so he signed with LBC in January 2017 and ran a very successful evening show for three years, sometimes hosting it from Washington or wherever he happened to be. Meanwhile Ukip was falling apart, and kept changing leaders. When they started cosying up to Tommy Robinson and the English Defence League, Farage said he didn’t recognise the party any more – ‘yobby, thuggy, nasty, extremist, racist’ – and announced that he was starting a new Brexit party. In fact a businesswoman called Catherine Blaiklock had already set it up and registered the domain name, but he persuaded her to hand it over. She said subsequently that he ‘shat on me from a great height’; but still ‘I don’t think he’s an evil person’.
The Brexit party won 29 seats in the Euro elections while the Tories only managed four, but they were out of Europe in January 2020. Farage rechristened the party Reform UK, but was very unclear what it was meant to do. He kept campaigning against cross-Channel migrants, but mainly he became a social media junkie, with 1.6 million followers on Twitter and more than a million on Facebook. When he put out a tweet comparing Black Lives Matter to the Taliban, LBC sacked him. He joined GB News, where he now presents his own prime-time TV show, attracting 80,000 viewers. But politically he seems redundant.
This is a deeply enjoyable book, written with immense brio and enhanced by some great photos. I particularly liked the one of Farage’s sexagenarian mother Barbara posing in the nude for a charity calendar. But whether Crick will ever need to add another chapter seems doubtful. Nigel Farage is an intriguing character who had a great run, but now the party really is over.