Nigel Farage is the ultimate Marmite politician. Yesterday, he was doused in milkshake by a protester – and on Thursday he's predicted to win the European elections. What's he actually like?
When I interviewed him in September 2016, he was the head of UKIP. His office was in UKIP’s head office on Great Smith Street, a few paces from Westminster Abbey. It’s a handsome enough, but hardly grand, eighteenth-century, classical brick townhouse. Inside, it was cramped and surprisingly small – a Tardis in reverse.
I was surprised by quite how small the UKIP operation was: a bank of eight computer terminals on one long desk, each with its own swivel chair in front of it. From these eight desks, the UKIP leadership orchestrated its nationwide campaign, with the added help of a young secretary, Vicky, who booked the buses for the rallies.
When I visited the office, it was empty, except for Vicky, Gawain Towler, the UKIP head of press, two young men sitting at the row of desks – and Farage himself.
Gone were the thick-set security men who often accompanied Farage on the campaign trail. Three or four of them followed him at most events, after death threats were received.
Farage's office was a small, functional corner room with bare walls, and a window overlooking the roofs and chimney pots of Westminster. On his computer, the screensaver showed a split-screen picture: on the left, Farage, grinning away in a flat cap; on the right, Michael Caine at his mid-’60s peak.
The sixties, and the Second World War, are Farage's dream time: his open-top, double-decker battle bus toured the country during the referendum to the tune of the 1963 war film, The Great Escape. Farage was born in 1964. The 1960s was also the last decade before Britain joined the EEC in 1973.
Leading off Farage’s office, there was a small smoking terrace – a strip of concrete flagstones, with four garden chairs made of black and white gauze. It was hardly lavish – and you couldn’t say anyone got rich from UKIP’s Brexit campaign. Halfway through the campaign, in fact, Gawain Towler took a 50 per cent pay cut to double the UKIP press team and take on a deputy. After the vote, he put his house on the market to avoid bankruptcy.
As I interviewed Farage, he smoked away, as did Towler. An open pack of Marlboro Lights sat on the table on the smoking terrace, a green lighter resting on a neighbouring chair.
I had met Farage several years before, on the set of Newsnight in BBC Broadcasting House. We had been doing separate items at the end of the show, and both happened to walk out of the studio at the same time, as the programme finished at 11.20 p.m.
‘Fancy a drink?’ Farage said, gesturing towards the green room, with its well-stocked fridge. You’re very welcome to have a drink afterwards at the BBC – it’s just that, in these fitness-obsessed, detoxified times, no one ever does.
‘Afraid I’ve got to head home,’ I said, in my own fitness-obsessed, detoxified way.
When I told a friend how struck I was by the open friendliness of the offer, my friend said, ‘He’s not being friendly. He’s being an alcoholic.’
I’m not sure he’s right. I quite see why lots of people loathe Farage but, for what it’s worth, compared to most politicians he’s surprisingly friendly. He never looks over your shoulder for the better offer, talks down to you, or ignores you because you have no political worth.
For someone who drinks heavily, he looked surprisingly fit and dapper: slightly tanned, a little shorter than you might expect, immaculately turned out in a powder blue suit, a multi-coloured, dotted tie, full brogues in black leather and bright red socks. His face, with his protruding, duck-like lips, bears more than a passing resemblance to Moe, the barman in The Simpsons.
One attractive female journalist on a political magazine, in her thirties, said to me, "You can tell he’s a lady’s man. I asked him, ‘What are you going to do, now that you’ve won?’ He said, ‘Take a few girls out to lunch.’ He’d never be a groper, like lots of politicians – he’s too much of a gentleman for that."
Farage is fond of military and sporting metaphors, like a jolly character out of P. G. Wodehouse. I asked him whether he wrote his speeches.
‘I did once get a speechwriter – all those teleprompters and everything,’ he said. 'They don’t work. I don’t write anything down. I like feeling a little bit nervous before a speech. You’ll find me just before, saying, "Why do I do this? I must be mad?" It’s a bit like cricket. I imagine you’ve played a bit of cricket yourself, haven’t you? Well, if you’re facing a fast bowler, it’s probably better if you’re a little on edge, if not actually scared.'
He punctuates his conversation with jokes, breaking into bouts of wheezing, nicotine-coated laughter. He smokes almost constantly. At one moment, he leapt up mid-interview, saying, ‘Excuse me. Must get my cigarettes.’
Still, he bears no obvious sign of being the heavy drinker that is so much part of his public persona. The eyes and suntanned skin are clear; there is no beer belly; no hungover tetchiness or need for a drink during our interview, which lasts from 12.30 p.m. till 1.45 p.m. – peak time for first drink of the day among traditional alcoholics.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he drinks a lot less than he likes to let on: not just because no heavy drinker could survive his working hours, but also because, as Winston Churchill knew with the rumours of his epic drinking, he realises a drinker’s reputation boosts his appeal as an everyman – holding up the saloon bar, rather than jockeying for position on the sparkling water and the dawn jogs.
He often drinks for the cameras, and makes an effort to drink with journalists. In the BBC political reporter Ben Wright’s 2016 book Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking, Farage confided that his upper limit before an interview is five pints.
In his ‘Lunch with the FT’ interview in April 2016 – a sushi and Perrier affair for most interviewees – Farage sank three pints of ale, half a bottle of Château de Lugagnac and a large glass of port.
When I interviewed him at lunchtime, I had cleared my afternoon in case a heavy drinking session materialised. Rather disappointingly, Farage talked solidly, without a break for lunch or a drink, before his next appointment. All he needed was a regular, mighty drag from his beloved fags.
What he did do was tell lots of stories that involved him drinking heavily.
‘Two lads from Sunderland in the John Betjeman in St Pancras yesterday,’ he told me at one point, ‘Boof, pint of beer, there you go, Nige.’
This fits with a story told by Peter York – the author and co-inventor of the Sloane Ranger. During the referendum campaign, York was sitting next to Farage at lunch at the Adam House club off the Strand in London.
‘We had a mixed grill – ideal lunch for Farage, you’d have thought,’ says York. ‘But I noticed he picked at his sausages and cut the fat off his bacon.’
‘I had two and a half glasses of the kitchen red on offer and saw he didn’t touch a drop throughout lunch.’
At one moment, Farage excused himself for a cigarette. York joined him, only to see him walk up the road, not to have a smoke, but to make a phone call. They then went back inside the club, where Farage was asked up on stage to give a speech.
‘Immediately he picked up the full, untouched wine glass and took it up on stage with him,’ says York, ‘Once he was on stage, glug, glug, glug…’
There’s something unintentionally old-fashioned about Farage – not just the flat caps and the tweed jackets, but the Leslie Phillips lingo – ‘fizz’ for ‘champagne’, calling me ‘dear boy’. He even mints his own slang: I was lost when he referred to losing ‘the big M’ – as in momentum – in the referendum campaign.
He is fond of military metaphors – referring to UKIP’s ‘volunteer army’. He says of the Vote Leave leaders, ‘You would not want these boys in the trench with Jerry 100 yards away. They’d be back at the château drinking port.’
‘I knew from June 2015 that this had to be shotgun, not rifle,’ he said of the campaign, referring to the spray action of pellets from a shotgun, rather than the single bullet of the rifle, ‘We had to reach as far and wide as we possibly could.’
At 55, he seems much older than he actually is – not in looks, but in general demeanour. My contemporaries from Dulwich College, his old school, are only seven years younger but they are utterly different – more urban, with classless accents and clothes.
There’s a sort of cheeky chappy, Max Miller side to him, in the way he interposes his serious political chat with well-honed one liners: ‘I always knew they were Lib Dems [on the campaign trail] because I’d go over and say, “Good morning”, and they’d be abusive.’
In that sense, he is like Boris Johnson, who is also longing to amuse and, if he sees a joke hoving into view, can’t resist grabbing it. Like Farage, Johnson knows the British public essentially find politics boring – throw in a joke, and they’ll swallow some dull, and sometimes shocking, material with a smile on their face. A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.
The Farage badinage never seems forced or put on – more like he has been transported straight from a 1950s Ealing comedy, mannerisms intact.
Usually, when you meet politicians in the flesh, they are different from their public persona: sometimes deflated, sometimes relaxed, sometimes ruder. Farage is as he comes across on telly – like a comedian, who’s always on.
He also talks to you – as Queen Victoria said of Gladstone – as though you were a public meeting. One of his regular tropes is to ask himself literally rhetorical questions, and then answer them himself: ‘Do we need some kind of Europe, a co-operative structure where neighbours live and trade together? The answer to that is yes. That might be my next project.’
His advisers interject as he speaks, and he politely lets them do so, with a few encouraging noises. But they speak as if trying to get a word in edgeways, knowing they are mere understudies to the main act.
‘I’m perfectly happy if people disagree with me,’ he says, talking about the advice given to him by Chris Bruni-Lowe, his campaign director. Like most modern politicians, Farage, for all his independence, closely follows polling and focus groups (in his case, done by Bruni-Lowe).
Farage’s manner is bouncy, confident, underlined with a series of jokes he deploys against himself the moment he’s in danger of showing off: ‘We got 5.8 million people voting UKIP in those two years – amazing. I can’t believe it. I wouldn’t vote for me!’
The UKIP referendum campaign was straightforward and unchanging – because UKIP’s aim, to get out of Europe, was straightforward and unchanging.
Farage has been an MEP since 1999, and has been charting its developments closely, even when journalists like me were treating the EU as too dull to report on at length.
‘Every newspaper reports the EU as foreign news, page 18 of The Times,’ he says, ‘It’s completely obvious that the project was in the process of acceleration not deceleration. Ever since 2008, Brussels was in a terrible panic that the crisis was driving people towards a different type of politics and they wanted to finish the project before anybody objected.’
All Farage wanted was the chance to have a referendum, and that chance came on 23 January 2013, with David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech, promising a referendum if the Tories won a majority at the next general election.
‘Bloomberg was a tremendous victory for us,’ Farage says. ‘It was so obvious to me at the time of Bloomberg that any argument that I should have worked from within the Conservative Party to reform things would never have worked – and actually the UKIP tactic of fighting and taking votes from the outside had worked.’
The Cameron strategy was aimed, too, at getting UKIP voters to vote for him at the general election – a strategy which largely worked.
‘Post-Bloomberg, everybody from your community [the press] thought the UKIP fox had been shot,’ says Farage, ‘I mean, this fox has been shot so many times, it must be a rare species.
‘Bloomberg validated us. Suddenly, what I was saying was mainstream. It wasn’t quite so kooky, wasn’t quite the elements of the fruitcakes, was it?’
In fact, it turned out that the next two years marked the high point of UKIP’s electoral power.
The first real sign of UKIP’s emerging clout was the Eastleigh by-election, held in February 2013, after the resignation of Chris Huhne, who went to jail for getting his wife to take his speeding points. The Liberal Democrats held the seat, but UKIP’s votes went up from 1,933 in 2010 to 11,571.
‘Why could the polls not predict how we’d do in the Eastleigh by-election?’ says Farage. 'Because they didn’t read there were several thousand people who’d never voted in their lives. So the next big job for us were the European elections – which I would say were our dress rehearsal in many ways for the referendum. It was on this issue. It wasn’t about anything else. Fighting a big European election campaign was important. And we won. We endured unbelievable abuse in getting there.'
At the European elections of 22 May 2014, UKIP won twenty-four seats, an eleven-seat gain; Labour won twenty seats, a seven-seat gain; and the Tories won nineteen seats, a seven-seat loss. The big losers were the Lib Dems, who won only one seat, a ten-seat loss.
‘The European elections were a warm-up in terms of the image, the style of campaign,’ says Nigel Farage. ‘We didn’t do a lot different in the referendum.’
In the extraordinary chain of events that led to the result of the European referendum, the European elections were crucial. They buttressed the Tories’ fear of losing the general election, courtesy of UKIP voters; they accelerated the Conservative determination to legislate for a referendum. Those same Tories who voted UKIP in the European Elections swung back to the Tories for the 2015 General Election – but they’d got used to voting flexibly. They largely voted no in the referendum.
And the moderate success of Ed Miliband kept him in his job; if Miliband had been replaced by a more effective leader, the Tories might not have won a general election, and the referendum wouldn’t have taken place.
As a result, Farage is pleased that UKIP just failed, by 617 votes, to beat Labour in the Heywood and Middleton by-election, on 9 October 2014 – in between the Carswell and Reckless by-election victories.
‘We came within a whisker,’ he says, ‘Of course, thank God we didn’t win because otherwise Miliband would have been got rid of as leader.’
The really crucial moments for UKIP were the defection of Douglas Carswell to UKIP from the Tories on 28 August 2014, followed by Mark Reckless on 27 September.
‘The Carswell defection was an important moment,’ says Farage. 'The Reckless defection was astonishing. The Carswell defection was never going to be a problem because, on the socio-economics, Clacton is the most Eurosceptic seat by a mile and, even though Carswell was the MP there, UKIP was on the march in a very big way.
'Rochester was different. Because it was seat number 254 on the socio-economics, it never had the underprivileged profile that benefited UKIP prospects. It might go UKIP in a by-election; never in a general election.
'What Mark did was stunningly brave. It was a bit like volunteering for a mission you’re unlikely to come back from. The high point of UKIP ever was the Rochester by-election, where the Tory Party had clearly broken the law at will, spent unbelievable sums of money, push-polled.'
‘Push-polling’ is when pollsters ring up and attempt to influence your vote while they’re talking to you. UKIP claims Tory push-pollers called, asking voters, ‘How do you feel that your MPs are drunk?’ They were referring to a moment in July 2010 when Reckless failed to vote in the Commons because he was too drunk.
‘It’s disgusting what they did,’ says Farage.
The two defections took UKIP to new heights.
‘We were on a bit of a crest of a wave,’ says Farage. ‘The Tories had money but we had people.’
Farage was completely aware that Carswell and Reckless had defected in order to push for a referendum, not out of any deep-seated affection for UKIP.
‘That’s why both of them did it – they did it just to lump that pressure on,’ says Farage.
At this stage, though, the aims of the Tate Britain Group and Farage were as one.
After UKIP’s two by-election victories and the victory in the European elections, few commentators thought the Conservatives would win a general election or, if they did, that the Brexiteers would win the referendum. But, once Cameron called the referendum in February 2016, the polls went up and down, sometimes predicting Brexit, sometimes not. All the time, UKIP continued to be treated by many as fruitcakes.
‘What was interesting was the extraordinary misconception from the commentariat which – still in 2015 – was that UKIP voters were all middle class, half-colonels living in Wiltshire,’ says Farage.
In the general election, the Cameron strategy worked. By promising a referendum, he successfully got voters, who had voted UKIP the year before in the European elections, to vote Tory in the general election. In the 2014 European elections, UKIP got 4,376,635 votes, and the Tories 3,792,549. In the 2015 general election, the Tories won 11,334,576 votes; UKIP 3,881,099.
‘You could argue that it was our votes that got David Cameron his majority,’ Farage says. ‘William Cash in North Warwickshire – the number two Labour target seat and the Tories win it comfortably.’
Cash, son of the veteran Eurosceptic MP, Sir Bill Cash, polled 8,256 votes for UKIP. The Tories benefited from a 2.1 per cent swing, with 20,042 votes; while Labour slumped by 4 cent to 17,069. UKIP, with a 14.6 swing, took their votes largely from Labour and the Lib Dems.
‘Two million of our Euro election voters voted Tory and we still got four million votes,’ says Farage.
But, while UKIP dropped Tory votes, they gained Labour ones.
‘The night of the general election, the first result in was Sunderland – funny that Sunderland keeps coming up in our political discourse,’ says Farage, referring to the Sunderland result in the referendum, the first significant sign that Brexit had won. 'I was on the telly and I said I wish the editors of the Mail and The Sun had seen this result – and seen what UKIP’s done to the Labour vote in Sunderland. And still nobody understood it; nobody believed it. We’d got trapped, in British politics, in this mentality that Euroscepticism was a centre-right thing. Well, of course, historically, it had always been a centre-left thing, or it had been stronger on the centre left.'
UKIP also engaged with non-voters.
‘Not only did the commentariat miss the fact that we were picking up Labour voters,’ says Nigel Farage, ‘they missed that lots of our voters in all forms of election – between one in four and one in five – were non-voters.’
During their general election campaign, UKIP polled better on immigration than any other party.
‘We decided to make it about immigration in February 2015,’ says Chris Bruni-Lowe, 'but Carswell would write articles, saying immigration was positive. He wanted billboards saying ‘Positive Immigration. It was just mad.
'I said, ‘We’ve got to do a campaign based on immigration.’ I was there when Nigel called Douglas into his office, saying, ‘Don’t contradict me on this issue of immigration. You don’t understand it.’ Nigel was right. Immigration was the only thing that got us near 4 million votes.'
The battle between Farage and Carswell was kicking off. And it had an odd, highly important result – it meant that Farage decided to renege on his resignation after the 2015 election, and lead the referendum campaign for UKIP.
‘In May 2015, there is a huge battle between Carswell and Suzanne Evans [the former UKIP spokesman] to get rid of Farage: to get a different leader, but also they didn’t want Nigel to lead the referendum campaign,’ says Chris Bruni-Lowe.
On the day of the national executive meeting of UKIP, Farage resigned. Shortly afterwards, he rang Bruni-Lowe.
‘He said, “You’ll never guess what Carswell’s just done,”’ says Bruni-Lowe. 'He asked Nigel whether or not he wanted to come back as leader in some form. And Nigel said, ‘Well, I don’t know; maybe with Brexit, I might do.’ Carswell said, ‘You must not come back, you’re toxic, you’ll damage the referendum campaign, you’ll lose it.’ Nigel went, ‘F**k this, I’m staying.’ If Carswell had played this right, Farage may have just walked off.'
So Farage resumed the leadership of UKIP three days after his resignation, to the relief of many, if not all, UKIP supporters.
The tectonic plates of British politics had lurched. Some psephologists spotted it. But no pundits pointed confidently to the result of an utterly changed political landscape – a vote for Brexit, little over a year after the general election, and the mass clearout of Numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street.
And who would have predicted that, three years after the referendum, UKIP have evaporated, to be replaced by the Brexit Party, led by Farage, and tipped by most to win the European elections this Thursday?
This is an updated extract from Harry Mount's 'Summer Madness – How Brexit Divided the Country'