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One Party After Another by Michael Crick — the life and ruthless times of Nigel Farage

Could Brexit have happened without Nigel Farage? The former leader of the UK Independence Party is rightly credited as a pivotal figure in the fight. Despite never holding a seat in the British parliament, he terrorised the ruling Conservative party into ever more hardline anti-EU stances until it finally offered the 2016 referendum that delivered Brexit. By this measure, Farage must be judged one of the most significant figures in modern British politics.

And yet although he was a key actor he operated mostly on the sidelines, more John the Baptist than messiah. In truth the key battle for Brexit was the one within the Tory party. Its drift towards a Brexit stance would probably have led to the referendum pledge sooner or later. Farage’s achievement was hastening that process. We cannot know how much of a difference timing made, but other economic and political circumstances might have led to a different outcome. We do know the referendum came at a time when Brexiters were able to exploit the years of austerity and wage stagnation that followed the financial crisis.

Yet while Farage’s place in the story of Brexit is secure, his accomplishments lie unacknowledged by the political establishment he despises but whose acknowledgment he also craves. There was no peerage, or even a knighthood. He had given an effective voice to a section of England whose concerns were not being heard. But he was ultimately ushered offstage by a more gifted communicator, someone who understood that victory is built on the widest possible base of popularity, rather than a narrow constituency of support. The individual now most associated with Brexit is Boris Johnson, a man who arrived more than fashionably late to the cause, and after him Dominic Cummings.

Now at least he has a new biography, though it is unauthorised and by Michael Crick, a writer adept at excavating information his subjects would prefer hidden. But even in illuminating his role in this remarkable chapter of British politics, One Party After Another demonstrates Farage’s hybrid role, simultaneously pivotal and yet also at one remove.

Farage’s key role was in using his remarkable communications skills to propel Ukip to a political prominence that allowed Conservative Eurosceptics to use the threat posed by him to push the party leadership into an ever more hardline stance. Under Farage, Ukip rose to secure more than 4mn votes in the 2014 European parliament elections and only a little less in the UK general election the following year — a phenomenal result for a minor party and small wonder it terrified the Tories. His blokeish style and his sense of humour, combined with killer political nous, were essential to Ukip’s impact. No leader before or since has come within a country mile of being able to pull off the same trick. The Brexit door was already ajar among Conservatives but Farage allowed his fellow travellers in the ruling party to force it wide open.

Crick does not ignore the way like-minded Tories used and then ditched Farage

But when the referendum came, Farage was sidelined. The official Vote Leave campaign went to great lengths to exclude someone they saw as a toxic figure who would only alienate swing voters. Farage’s allies argue that without him the immigration concerns that solidified support would not have been raised as prominently or effectively.

After the vote, he was possibly even more decisive. As opponents fought for a second referendum to reverse the decision and parliament itself was in stalemate, it was his last-minute formation of the Brexit party which finished off the government of Theresa May by crushing the Tories in the 2019 European parliamentary elections. That was enough to convince the Tories that they faced electoral oblivion unless they got a leader who would “get Brexit done”. In this Farage set a model for insurgent groups in a Westminster electoral system loaded against them. If you cannot win power, you can hold sway by threatening one of the main parties with losing it.

Since Brexit, Farage has been casting around for a purpose beyond occasionally once again frightening Tories by threatening a return to frontline politics. But while he grabs headlines railing against illegal immigrants, net zero policies and Covid-19 restrictions, his main job now is as a pundit for GB News.

Nigel Farage’s feet - he is wearing Union Jack socks at the launch of the Brexit party’s European Parliament elections campaign in April 2019

Nigel Farage in Union Jack socks at the launch of the Brexit party’s European Parliament elections campaign in April 2019 © Bloomberg

Crick has delivered a comprehensive chronicle that details, perhaps more than anyone really needs, the internal squabbles and viciousness of the party’s early days, as well as his subject’s love life. Farage emerges as a fairly ruthless infighter and dictator. He was not terribly loveable in these fights but when one studies the cavalcade of fifth-raters he bests in the process, it is hard not to conclude that it was just as well for Leavers that he did. While critical in parts, the book is more even-handed than the subject might have feared. Crick, a joyously disruptive journalist, may even have a scintilla of kinship for a fellow maverick.

There are few real bombshells. Crick examines historic allegations of links to far-right groups and finds them thin gruel. The early days of Ukip saw overlapping nationalist groups swimming in the same muddy pond. The most damaging claim, Crick concludes, was probably a set-up orchestrated by the far-right BNP. Crick places him more in the mould of the former Tory politician Enoch Powell, whom Farage long admired, with similar prejudices and instincts and the same ability to offer up unsavoury dog whistles.

Perhaps the most striking feature is the role of luck in Farage’s success. His first break was the death in 1997 of Sir James Goldsmith and with him the bigger and far better funded rival Referendum Party. And then perhaps the most important moment in Ukip’s rise came courtesy of Tony Blair’s decision to agree to a new and proportional electoral system for the UK’s European parliamentary elections. These contests allowed Ukip its only major electoral breakthroughs and therefore Farage’s access to the broadcast media. Farage also was sceptical of the case for a referendum, fearing, perhaps, that it could be lost even on the night itself.

The greatest weakness of One Party After Another is an unavoidable fact of its subject. For all his skills, Farage is rarely close to the real action. He operated in his own pool, effective when the ripples reached others but always swimming apart from those in power. Crick does not ignore the way like-minded Tories used and then ditched Farage, but that occupies too little of the book compared with the pages on Ukip’s infighting. The novelist Robertson Davies coined the term “Fifth Business” to describe a character in a narrative, neither hero nor heroine, confidante nor villain, but who is nonetheless essential to the denouement of the story. Perhaps this is Farage: a gifted, ruthless, mercurial and sometimes reptilian figure who was key to getting the teams on the pitch but had to watch the match being decided by others.

One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage by Michael Crick, Simon & Schuster £25, 608 pages

Robert Shrimsley is the FT’s UK chief political commentator

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