Nigel Farage has been on the radio this morning, almost plaintively offering to be part of a Government team renegotiating the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Maybe it’s a genuine offer in good faith. Maybe it’s a political wheeze, meant to make him and his Brexit Party sound like a proper, grownup organisation.
And maybe it’s revealing something about Farage and what he really wants.
I don’t claim to know Farage well, or even at all. I’ve interviewed him several times and spoken to him many times less formally. I’ve also spoken to many people who have worked with him over the years. And one abiding impression I’ve taken from all that is that Nigel Farage, the ultimate outsider, wants to be accepted and embraced by the insiders. A common theme to Farage’s politics is that he isn’t listened to or taken seriously by important people. He sometimes sounds aggrieved about that, and with reason too.
This isn’t the moment for a psychoanalysis of Farage, but it’s hard not to ponder on this former Dulwich College boy and City metals trader (not a banker: the distinction matters for all sorts of reasons) and his relationship with the party that was the natural home of people of his class.
Whatever his ultimate motives, Farage is the most influential British politician of this century so far. If he hadn’t successfully fused public anxiety over immigration with the more abstract issue of EU legal competence, there would have been no EU referendum.
And yet he remains beyond the pale. There are good reasons for that, but democratically it’s hard to rationalise the fact that someone so consequential remains outside Parliament. That absence also might help explain why that Parliament strikes some people as less than legitimate or representative.
Anyway, listening to Farage almost begging for a role in the Brexit process of a new Tory Government, I was left pondering one of the great What If? questions of recent times. What if Farage had been bought off in 2013 or 2014?
In 2013, Farage and Ukip shook the Tories to their core by beating them into third in the Eastleigh by-election. The following year, Ukip won the European Parliament election and David Cameron’s referendum became inevitable.
During those years, and after, some Tories pondered whether instead of paying the Danegeld, they should invite the Viking into the palace: give Farage a peerage.
That is, according to several former associates, the sort of thing Farage would have been keen on. An ermine cloak and a seat on the red benches would be proof that he was finally being taken seriously, that the important folk had accepted him as one of them.
But it didn’t happen. Cameron could never have stomached the notion of Farage in the Lords.
After the 2016 referendum, the idea bubbled up again, when the case for it was even stronger: the man who spoke for millions of Leave voters surely had as good a case for a permanent place in Parliament as some people who have seats in the Lords. But again, it didn’t happen.
What would have happened if either Cameron or May had reached out to Farage, offered him the bauble of a peerage and a title — offered him recognition and acceptance? Might he have gone quiet, faded away? There was nothing inevitable about his return to the fray: when I interviewed him in December 2016, he was clearly at a loose end and looking for something else to do. He even suggested he fancied a crack at Middle East peace: yup, him and Tony Blair both.
Could a peerage, a hug and a made-up job have persuaded Farage to go away and leave electoral British politics alone? What would have happened if he hadn’t returned, leaving his third-rate old colleagues in Ukip as the main pro-Brexit challenger to the Tories this year?
I don’t know the answer, but listening to Farage this morning celebrating a victory that could yet wreck the Conservative Party and push Britain into a new level of political dysfunction, I can’t help but think it would have been worth a try.
Michael Gove is in conversation with Fraser Nelson on Wednesday 5th June. Click here to book tickets