Nigel Farage Is Back, Putting His Weight Behind a No-Deal Divorce

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- He’s back, and no one in British politics knows what to do. As leader of the U.K. Independence Party until November 2016, Nigel Farage helped to turn leaving the European Union from a fringe idea of a few constitutional obsessives into the policy of Her Majesty’s government.

After the 2016 Brexit referendum, he announced his retirement from frontline politics and his intention to get his “life back.” This turned out to mean hosting a U.K. radio phone-in show and becoming a contributor to Fox News. He also kept his seat in the European Parliament.

Now he’s returned as the head of a new outfit, the Brexit Party, which has gone from nowhere among British parties in the runup to this month’s European elections to polling in first place, at around 30% of the vote, according to surveys. His message is simple. Britain needs to leave the EU immediately, without a deal. That this hasn’t happened is the result of a plot by mainstream politicians to thwart the will of the people.

“We voted to leave,” Farage told the BBC. “We didn’t vote for a deal.” When it’s pointed out that before the referendum he assured voters there would be a deal with the EU, he replies that it’s Prime Minister Theresa May’s fault for failing to negotiate properly.

Part of the problem other parties have in dealing with Farage is the struggle that mainstream politicians have with populists everywhere: Complex compromises are harder to sell than easy absolutes. Farage has long appealed to a section of the electorate that chooses to see him as an unspun straight talker.

There are specific British reasons why this is an ideal moment for Farage. On Brexit, there are many in May’s Conservative Party who agree with him. Indeed, it’s hard to see the difference between Farage’s position and that of the anti-EU Conservatives who refuse to vote for May’s Brexit deal because they say it’s not really Brexit. The strategy of the establishment Conservatives is to run a campaign for the EU elections that’s somewhere between low-key and subterranean.

Meanwhile, the opposition Labour Party, which might usually expect to benefit from a split government, is wrestling with its own Brexit torture. Many of the party’s voters and its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, back leaving the EU. But the majority of its activists and its members of Parliament hate the idea. Corbyn’s solution is to try to avoid discussing Europe in the European elections.

That means that Farage’s Brexit Party is almost the only actively campaigning party that supports leaving the EU. The other party that fits the bill explains why Farage, for all his current success, isn’t without problems: UKIP, the party that Farage led and shaped in his own image. Farage left UKIP in 2018, saying it was a damaged brand obsessed with Islam. The changes he decried happened after he left, but the decision to make UKIP a party that campaigned against immigration and warned that British culture was under threat was made by Farage. In his new party, he recognizes that anti-Islamic language puts off voters he wants to appeal to, but he’s struggled to escape it. He’s had to remove several senior staff over their past inflammatory comments.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt on May 14 expressed the hope that a heavy defeat for the Conservatives would shock his side into voting for the prime minister’s deal. But a win for Farage is likely to result in the opposite: “Leave” Conservatives who believe he speaks for them feeling vindicated, more entrenched than ever in their positions.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at hchuaeoan@bloomberg.net

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