Nigel Farage: the public face of Ukip who says his job is done

Nigel Farage with Press

Nigel Farage has been promising to shake up British politics and cause an “earthquake” in Westminster for years, but his first real political breakthrough was the Eastleigh byelection of 2013, with Ukip running the Liberal Democrats close and pushing the Tories into third place, after it ran a campaign warning about migration from Bulgaria and Romania.

Under Farage’s always-on-television leadership, the party went on to top the polls at the European elections of 2014 and scored victories against Cameron by securing the defections of the Tory MPs Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless in 2015. Both won byelections in their seats subsequently.

Farage was riding high, but his style had begun to prove controversial both within and outside of the party. Rival politicians frequently accused him of exploiting public fears about immigration, as he made contentious claims about people feeling uncomfortable living next door to Romanians and awkward when others spoke foreign languages on the train.

He went on to cause an even bigger furore during the general election as he suggested migrants with HIV should be excluded from the country.

The general election result proved disappointing for Ukip, and observers began to wonder whether the party had reached its peak. Despite having secured 4 million votes, Ukip won only a single seat and Farage himself failed to become an MP at the seventh attempt.

The party was plunged into a bout of vicious infighting as Farage stepped down and then reversed his decision, triggering attempts to remove him from the helm. He clashed frequently with Carswell and turned against Suzanne Evans, who he had previously anointed as interim leader, suspecting them of involvement in a coup. They both denied this aim.

It was only once he had re-established his supremacy within Ukip by autumn 2015 that Farage was able to throw himself into the EU referendum campaign with the help of the party donor Arron Banks and the grassroots Leave.EU network.

Farage had entered politics from a career as a metals trader in the City of London. He would later often reminisce about this time of long lunches and fast money as a “proper job” in contrast to the work of career politicians.

He was a founding member of Ukip after leaving the Conservative party in 1992 in protest at the signing of the Maastricht treaty, and ascended to the leadership in 2006 when it was still a fringe, single-issue party obsessed with the EU to the exclusion of everything else.

Michael Howard, the former Conservative leader, once memorably dismissed his party as a bunch of “cranks and gadflies”, while David Cameron waved away Ukip as a collection of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”.

Farage stepped back in 2009 to unsuccessfully challenge the Commons Speaker, John Bercow, at the general election, handing over the reigns to Lord Pearson, who led Ukip into the next year’s general election.

Pearson’s tenure proved electorally unsuccessful, but the peer successfully started linking anti-EU politics with a public concern about immigration. This was a theme that Farage would develop when he regained the reins in 2010, despite having recently suffered health troubles caused by a light aircraft crash.

By this time he had a cult following among Eurosceptics, especially because of his tendency to shout insults at senior Brussels figures in the European parliament. He once claimed Herman van Rompuy, the former European council president, had the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk and the charisma of a damp rag. “I don’t want to be rude … Who are you? I’d never heard of you, nobody in Europe had ever heard of you,” he told his adversary to a shocked audience in Brussels.

When it came to the referendum campaign, he found himself being squeezed out of the official leave campaign as the Vote Leave group run primarily by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove tried to distance itself from his brand, regarding it as toxic and unhelpful.

But by the end of the campaign, Vote Leave ended up aping his message on controlling borders, borrowing his Believe in Britain slogan, and adopting his “elites v the people” anti-establishment narrative, as the focus shifted from arguments about sovereignty and the economics of Brexit to warnings about immigration.

Days before the vote, Farage made time for one final controversial move: a poster showing a stream of migrants and the slogan “Breaking point”. This provoked immediate outrage from politicians on the left and right, and claims that it echoed Nazi propaganda. Farage dismissed the furore, claiming people would not have been so exercised had it not been published on the same day as the Labour MP Jo Cox was killed.

Jo Cox’s death caused loss of campaign momentum, says Nigel Farage

When the referendum result became clear on 24 June, Farage could not contain his joy, declaring in the early hours of the morning that it was “independence day” and proclaiming that the triumph had been achieved “without a single bullet being fired”.

He said: “This is a victory for real people, a victory for ordinary people, a victory for decent people.”

In a triumphant speech in the European parliament, he mocked all those who had written him off. “When I came here 17 years ago and said I wanted to lead a campaign to get Britain to leave the European Union, you all laughed at me. Well, I have to say, you’re not laughing now, are you?”

Resigning on Monday, Farage said he had got his country back and it was now time to get his life back, having devoted decades to getting the UK out of the EU.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for The Guardian on Monday 4th July 2016 19.31 Europe/London

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