Wednesday 13 November 2019 5:53 am

In his pursuit of power, Farage is gambling with Brexit itself

Alan Mendoza is executive director of the Henry Jackson Society.

Single-issue campaign groups are curious beasts. They spring up, sometimes overnight, when the need arises. In many cases, they succeed in achieving their stated goal, and all the blood, sweat and tears involved in facilitating change is recognised as worthwhile. 

However, there is a bittersweet irony at play during the very moment of triumph. Victory signifies the end of relevance for the organisation in question. The disease being fought against is cured, the social ill identified is obliterated. 

Sensible campaign groups recognise the inevitable nature of their demise and respond accordingly by shutting down. 

But there is a subset which decide that even if their particular dragon has been slain, the lure of the limelight is too great to surrender. They convince themselves that their cause has not quite been fulfilled — that the disease or social ill has only been 98 per cent eradicated — and that there is a justification for their carrying on to prevent recidivism. 

Such is to be the fate, it would appear, of the Brexit Party, and in particular its leader, Nigel Farage. 

In his long career in British politics, Farage has enjoyed outsized influence for a non-mainstream politician. When he joined a tiny irrelevancy called Ukip in the 1990s, Farage’s belief in what has become known as Brexit never wavered.

Slowly but surely, he built what was a fringe movement into one that catapulted him into the European Parliament, and which became a force of disruption in British domestic politics. 

Farage scaled the heights of influence in the 2010 parliament. Ukip’s vote-winning ability in marginal constituencies was held to be one of the main reasons for the Conservative failure to win a majority in that election. 

With a goodly number of his own MPs and members supportive of Farage’s stance on Europe, Prime Minister David Cameron took a fateful course of action and promised a referendum on EU membership in a bid to stave off discontent.

It worked. The Tories secured a majority in 2015. Cameron called the Brexit referendum, Farage headed the unofficial Leave campaign, and the rest should have been history, with the Ukip leader retreating from active politics to wile away the hours hosting talk radio shows with his new pal Donald Trump, and his party slumping onto the sidelines.

Except that it wasn’t to be. 

Theresa May’s government’s failure to close the door on Brexit gave the ever-opportunistic Farage a way back in. And to be fair, there was a legitimate argument to suggest that May’s Brexit deal involved Britain being a paying rule-taker and not a rule-maker, as the infamous Irish backstop relied on continued EU customs union membership. 

The Brexit Party was born to finish Farage’s life mission, and the pressure it created helped ensure that May’s deal died a death on parliament’s floor. 

But this is where the hero of our tale — or is it villain — stumbled. When a new, blond-haired and equally pugnacious champion arose to take on the mantle of Brexiteer-in-chief, Farage found it difficult to move aside. 

Boris Johnson’s deal with the European Union is everything that May’s was not from a sovereignty perspective. The UK will leave the customs union, and Great Britain the Single Market. There remain regulatory compliance and judicial requirements, but any trading regime — including a WTO one — will require submission to some form of collective arbitration. 

This kind of deal should have been the stuff of dreams for someone who had been advocating British sovereignty for the past 30 years.

Yet Farage has found it hard to adapt and settle on a new position. First he announced that he wanted an electoral pact with the Conservatives, then that Brexit Party candidates would stand nationally, and finally that they would stand only in non-Conservative held seats. 

This makes very little sense. If the Conservatives were fitting partners for a “Leave Alliance” to rival the Remain variant, then Farage’s initial decision to stand candidates against them could only have been motivated by pique that his attempts to secure a share of real power for once (as opposed to just influence) had been rebuffed. 

Nor is his current stance much better. The Leave vote may now be prevented from splintering in Conservative seats, but even a stripped-down Brexit Party presence could threaten a Conservative majority by handing victory in marginals to Remain-supporting parties. 

The Conservatives believe that this election is winnable because Leave voters will switch directly from Labour to themselves in parts of the country that have been red for generations. But if the Brexit Party stands, these voters might take a non-tribal option, robbing the Conservatives of victory. 

Farage may well claim, erroneously, that Boris’s deal is “not Brexit”, but in so doing he is gambling with Brexit itself.  

It is not too late for our latest single-issue party to see sense. It would be the ultimate irony for one of the architects of Brexit to be responsible for its demise. By the time nominations close tomorrow, we will know if it is truly the Brexit cause, or merely his position within it, that Farage values most.

City A.M.'s opinion pages are a place for thought-provoking views and debate. These views are not necessarily shared by City A.M.