A chipper-looking Nigel Farage is returning to the political front line and rescuing Brexit from its enemies is just the start
Brexit’s in trouble, not that you would know it sitting opposite the genial fellow off the telly who brought it into being. Nigel Farage is lean, tanned and relaxed. He wears £2 coin cufflinks and gives every indication of enjoying life immensely. What he actually says, though, will be ominous for many of those who have taken him seriously in the past.
He says a highly organised Remain campaign is plotting to derail Brexit by forcing the government to suspend Article 50 as negotiations with Europe grind to a halt this autumn.
The former Ukip leader threatened to return to frontline politics if he believed Brexit was in peril. Two months on, he does and he has. Fired up by the “abject surrender” of Theresa May’s Chequers plan and what he calls the betrayal of the people by Britain’s political class, Mr Farage is rewinding the clock to 2016.
“I’m back,” he said this week. He returns more as germinator than Terminator, but the Farage faithful will welcome him. Their pinstripe revolutionary will board a battle bus, hold rallies and make the case for a clean break with the EU. Left to itself, he says, Westminster would settle for a version of Brexit worse than none at all. Asked if that could lead to civil unrest, he won’t rule it out.
The new pitch has been co-ordinated with the Leave Means Leave campaign, financed by the Brexiteer businessmen Richard Tice and John Longworth. It is aimed at Leave voters who may be wavering, and it takes no prisoners.
In Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, Mr Farage offers a villain whom he accuses of “almost encouraging Republican terrorism” in Ireland. In Boris Johnson he sees a man who could still be prime minister but who blew his best chance in his July resignation speech.
Mrs May he regards as a careerist putting party before country at a once-in-a-lifetime moment in British history. She could have seized the moral high ground by giving EU migrants permanent UK residency at the start of the talks and then played hard ball, but she lacked the courage. She clings on, he believes, only because the party fears a three-month leadership contest that could play into the hands of those manoeuvring to shelve Brexit for good.
This supposed Article 50 plot is what animates Mr Farage now. He considers it a far graver threat to Brexit than a second referendum, which he’s confident Leave would win with a bigger majority than last time. Even without a leadership battle, he foresees “a concerted campaign to get Article 50 suspended on the basis that we’re simply not ready”, he says. “I think there’s a big moment coming up this autumn, I feel it in my waters.”
Something is welling up inside the man who thought the climax of his political career was to have made Brexit happen. The trouble, in his view, is that it isn’t happening after all.
He ticks off the reasons: the “backstop” to ensure a soft border in Ireland consists of full regulatory alignment that in effect would keep Britain in the single market. “On migration, they’ve virtually given up. On fisheries they’ve totally given up. My biggest fear is that we finish in a position even worse than being members, stuck in an unending transition, still paying God knows how much money, still not free to strike out or genuinely make our own laws. I’m pretty disenchanted.”
He doesn’t look disenchanted. When we meet in a London hotel, the man who fuelled his Brexit campaign with beer and cigarettes looks chipper. His daily radio talk show for LBC is broadcast from across the street and he loves the buzz from it. The money is presumably useful too — last year, after an 18-year marriage to his second wife, Kirsten Mehr, he said he was “separated and skint”. But he is quick to stress that money has nothing to do with his return. “All I know, in my heart, is if we leave the Brexit process to the political class it’s almost impossible that it will come out anything like most Brexit supporters thought it would,” he says.
He orders tea and suggests we head outside, not to smoke but because of the music (he suffers from tinnitus). It’s the day his friend Donald Trump’s former campaign manager is convicted of fraud but if Mr Farage is bothered he doesn’t show it. The Paul Manafort case has nothing to do with Mr Trump, he insists. The separate guilty plea to campaign finance felonies by Mr Trump’s personal lawyer could be more serious, but it’s nothing compared with overspending by the Clinton campaign. And there’s no smoking gun linking Mr Trump to porn stars. “If there’s a tape of Trump saying, ‘Deal with this’, then he’s got a real problem. But there isn’t.”
Nor is Mr Farage bothered by the 80 preparedness reports that the government started publishing this week. These warn among other things that British card payments for EU goods will get more expensive and that drug companies have been told to start stockpiling medicines. Has he read any of the documents? “No.” Will he? “Yes, I will read them but I don’t really believe them.”
As evidence that the government is suddenly taking a no-deal scenario seriously, the exercise isn’t credible, he says. “But it’s a very good way of stopping Boris challenging for the leadership. There’s no way May is taking us towards a no-deal Brexit. I do not believe it, but it keeps lots of civil servants employed and it allows her to pretend that she’s serious about it. She’s not.”
Mr Farage’s most effective critique of Remainers, remoaners and soft Brexiteers (they’re all the same to him) has always been that they talk only to each other and have no idea about real life outside their bubble. Sooner or later he may have to admit that he lives in a bubble too, in which facts, data, research, laws and obligations matter less than the cadence of a soundbite or the number of eyeballs on a YouTube clip.
He cares enormously about his social media profile. “Boris should be massive on social media and he’s not. I can’t believe it. It’s so blooming obvious.” He seems to care less about reality. On Ireland he is wilfully obtuse. He sees the argument that leaving the customs union and single market would mean the return of infrastructure to the border as fake. “Full marks to Barnier. He’s terrified the British establishment into being prepared to surrender almost everything.” Mr Barnier “would like the IRA to become active again” and has cultivated the idea of “a hard border and soldiers with rifles”.
Much of this is project fear, Farage-style. The border debate is not about armed guards, except in a worst-case scenario, but about the risk of physical checkpoints becoming targets for paramilitaries. So far no one has come up with a plausible alternative to such checkpoints if the countries are to diverge on tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers such as livestock health and hygiene standards.
Challenged on the detail, Mr Farage swerves like the great Brian O’Driscoll. “Look,” he says (again). “The rugby team play together. All of Ireland has been a compromise since 1921. We make it work. Remarkable that Sinn Fein and DUP supporters watch Ireland play rugby. There you are . . . Massive differences exist on that Irish border. How do we deal with it? Live and let live. We co-operate. It works. We get by.”
That won’t satisfy Mr Barnier, of course. He knows that a more accurate answer to “how do we deal with it?” has been for both countries to be members of the EU. The Farage approach may not satisfy some of the less credulous voters he encounters on his return to the soapbox, either. But he does have the makings of a plan to revive his vision of Brexit, which is more than can be said of many of his fellow Leavers.
They have been disorganised and defensive since the day after the referendum. He offers an elaborate cricket metaphor involving short balls then cuts to the chase: “We just let the other side kick us, kick us, kick us.”
The Remainers were in disarray too at first but their fightback has been slick, well financed and relentless. He lists the key players as George Soros (the Hungarian-born billionaire also demonised by nationalists in Budapest), Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Roland Rudd, the PR maestro and brother of the former home secretary, Amber. They’ve seized the narrative, he says, and stage one of his plan is to seize it back. Stage two is to remind MPs that Leave voters feel pretty strongly about leaving, although unlike Barry Gardiner, the shadow trade secretary, he’s “too English” to believe they could turn violent. Stage three is to reverse the drift towards Remain in polls and stage four is to fight the Article 50 suspension plot.