The narrative at the moment has been one of Nigel Farage in ascendancy, leading his plucky band of Faragistas in a Brexit revolt against the “metropolitan liberal elite”. Much coverage has been given to his rallies, and one could easily assume that the masses are flocking to him.
But a closer inspection of the facts representing the nation’s mood paints a rather different picture. There is no denying that Nigel Farage is a force of nature. There are very few people, if any, in this country that can galvanise a movement around themselves in the way that he can.
Yet once we swallow this bitter pill, and accept that Farage is a phenomenal campaigner, new perspectives reveal themselves to us. Namely that he doesn’t lead a political movement, he leads a cult of personality. It doesn’t matter what he attaches his name to – he is the brand. UKIP were not a serious force prior to Farage’s arrival, and they could only seem to function while he was leader. Each time he tried to step away, the party began to disintegrate only to rally once more upon his return to the helm.
And therefore while it is remarkable that he managed to rustle up a party in just six weeks that topped the polls in the European elections, it is also entirely consistent with what Farage has proved himself capable of.
But if we view Farage through this lens, we might conclude that under the circumstances, he’s underperforming. And that his influence actually appears to be waning. In 2014, 4.4 million people voted for Nigel Farage in the European elections. Five years later, in spite of everything that’s happened, and despite creating a platform that had one policy, Brexit, Farage was only able to draw another 800,000 voters to his cause. His 5.2 million backers in the European elections represent less than a third of the “17.4 million” that him and his supporters endlessly talk about. Not to mention the fact that more people signed a petition demanding a revocation of Article 50.
Bear in mind that he frequently tells us that what he wants is what the majority of “ordinary, British, working people” want. Well they certainly have a strange way of expressing support for his point of view.
And now, after throwing all of his efforts into winning a parliamentary by-election in Peterborough – a city that voted 61% in favour of leaving the EU – he has failed. Farage had been very confident of success here and he was the bookies’ favourite. This was supposed to the Farage project’s high water mark, and sadly for him, it will probably prove to be such.
Now, the only way is down. You can only surf a single issue, populist, manifesto-less wave for so long. And when you’ve managed to garner the support of a lot of people who back you based on the single issue you represent, announcing additional policies is only ever going to lose you support. All of the people that might back Farage are backing him right now. Farage saturation among the British electorate is at 100%. You can see this from many of the relatively sane candidates that he has managed to attract to stand for the Brexit Party. They’re willing to overlook his background of casual racism, supporting an American-style healthcare system in place of the NHS, opposing extended maternity leave, and opposing a rise in the minimum wage.
But, as soon as the mask slips, and Farage begins to talk about issues beyond Brexit, the moderates currently surrounding him will drop him as quickly as the Farage hardcore have dropped UKIP.
Farage should not be underestimated. He is a formidable personality, and a very effective demagogue. But Peterborough has shown that he is also far from the champion of the ordinary, working, British people that he claims to represent.