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Welcome to the resistance, Nigel Farage

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage attends an election campaign event at Bolsover Boxing Club. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images) - Credit: Getty Images

JAMES BALL on how the Brexit Party leader has become Remain’s secret weapon.

As Tammy Wynette so nearly sang, sometimes it’s hard to be an attention-seeker. So we should all spare a thought for poor Nigel Farage, who if he were any normal entry-level attention-seeker would be on the horns of an absolutely intractable dilemma about what to do in this election campaign: Should I prioritise my career or my cause?

His problem jumps back to a few weeks after the 2016 referendum when, after a short victory lap, he announced he was resigning (again) as UKIP leader because, as he said, “I want my life back”.

In his touching resignation speech he declared his political mission done, but warned the UK needed “the best possible deal” to the leave the EU, which should be secured by putting pressure on German chancellor Angela Merkel and France’s then-president François Hollande.

Getting the deal Farage wanted would rely on the UK hiring “teams of negotiators” and putting down “some pretty clear red lines”. He even helpfully set out what two of those should be: Britain needed to show that “we’re not going to give in on issues like free movement” and would leave the “big business protectionist cartel” that he believes the single market to be.

Flash forward slightly more than three years, and – to the UK’s great shock – Farage has not, in fact, stepped back from the front lines of politics, and instead now serves as leader of yet another political party, the Brexit Party.

Still, he could note with pride that one political leader has secured a deal with the EU and, even better, one that secures the very red lines he set out in his speech just weeks after the Brexit vote: A deal that sees the entire UK leave the single market and effectively ends free movement too.

Farage may be slightly peeved that the party leader who has achieved this accomplishment is, alas, not him, but instead Boris Johnson. Nonetheless, the prime minister’s deal enables a very hard Brexit with no long-term protections of workers’ rights or other key provisions. So, for a hard Brexiteer, it’s a arrangement which gives them almost everything they’d ever wanted.

Indeed, Johnson’s deal leaves open the possibility of trading under the fabled “WTO terms” – better known as a no-deal, though without the worst of the short-term disruption – within months of passing, should the government not seek a transition. If Johnson can pass his deal, it represents almost total victory for even the hardest of Brexiteers.

The biggest stumbling block to that deal becoming a reality is securing enough votes in the UK parliament to make sure the agreement is ratified on the UK side – the expectation is that it would be approved by MEPs if so, given the mounting desire on the continent for some end, any end, to the ongoing Brexit saga.

Johnson decided he didn’t have the votes to do that in the parliament voted in by the public in 2017, so after several abortive attempts managed to secure an early election next month.

Anyone wishing to stand as a Conservative will be standing on a manifesto to pass Johnson’s deal – there will be no more room for backbench rebels – so all the PM needs for his hard Brexit to pass is a majority, however small. Finally, then, the last push for Farage to achieve the goal he’s spent decades of his adult life working towards is clear: All he has to do is stand up and say, in public, that someone else, Boris Johnson, has managed to deliver Brexit, and that everyone should vote for him and the Conservative Party that he leads. Job done!

Needless to say, that bears no resemblance to what Farage is actually doing. Instead, he is loudly and publicly shouting “betrayal”, claiming Johnson’s deal is yet another variant of Brexit-in-name-only, and issuing grand public demands that are entirely impossible to meet.

The first of these is that the UK negotiates a “simple” free trade agreement with the EU within three months or so. Given the EU requires agreement over citizens’ rights, the Irish border and the exit bill – in other words, the topics of the current phase of negotiations – before it will even begin these talks, this is asking the impossible, even if ‘simple’ free trade talks didn’t take years or decades to complete.

The other demand is for Johnson to throw out the deal he’s made the cornerstone of his election campaign in favour of simply leaving with no deal, which oddly the PM doesn’t seem minded to do. If Johnson were to reject his demands, Farage warns, the Brexit Party will be forced to stand against Conservatives in “hundreds” of seats.

The stage is set, then, for a battle of the Brexiteers: A hard Brexit vs no-deal Brexit fight at the ballot box. The issue for those who want to leave the EU is that they aren’t the only parties competing at the election, and almost every other major party is committed either to a second referendum on Brexit or to revoke it entirely.

The effect the Brexit Party could have on the election result is anyone’s guess – the UK electoral system is well into uncharted waters.

The best hope for the Tories is that in northern, pro-Brexit, Labour-Conservative marginals the Brexit Party take votes from Labour of people who would never vote Tory, helping the party win those seats. That is a highly specialist case, though, and ignores the fact that even in Leave-leaning Labour seats, most of those who actually voted Labour in 2017 were Remainers, meaning there’s just not that many votes the Brexit Party could take from them.

That would suggest the Brexit Party would be more likely to split the Tory vote, allowing Labour or even the Liberal Democrats to take seats. In this world – which seems to be the one which best matches the 2017 votes and the nature of the key battlegrounds this time – a good performance for the Brexit Party could be an essential component in, er, stopping Brexit. Like some born-again Steve Bray – Westminster’s boisterous ‘Mr Stop Brexit’ – Farage’s noisy denunciations of Johnson’s deal could destroy the entire Leave project. Nigel Farage, welcome to the resistance.

Prominent Brexiteers have not failed to notice the bizarre situation in which Farage appears to have put them. Arron Banks, the controversial millionaire funder first of UKIP and then of Leave.EU has publicly split with his old friend and has made repeated requests via Twitter for him to change course.

Brexit Party members and supporters are tweeting their resignations, and the already fractured Leave coalition is publicly dividing into the kind of infighting the anti-Brexiteers were mocked for a week ago.

At its core lies the fragile ego of Farage. Opposing the EU has been his life’s work, and it has brought him fame – or, at least, notoriety – sizeable income, media appearances, powerful friends and more. Should the UK ever actually leave the EU on anything resembling the lines Farage suggested, what role does he have left? What new cause can he champion?

Even worse, Farage may – if the UK leaves under a deal like Johnson’s, which satisfies so many of his “red lines” – have to own the consequences of his advocacy. If Brexit happens, on terms closely resembling what Farage wanted, and turns out not to lead to the golden future he promised, people will rightly hold him responsible. After a lifetime escaping ever actually having to enact what he’s promised, Farage would be unlikely to enjoy that experience.

Such is the dilemma facing Farage: His cause or his career. And so anyone could reasonably suspect if he could find some way to undermine Brexit, or at least to claim any given Brexit was not sufficiently ‘pure’, he avoids the worst of both worlds. Should Johnson win and leave under his deal, well, Farage opposed it. If Johnson loses, Farage is there to retake the mantle of Brexit’s truest cheerleader.

Farage’s future relies on the cause he has led failing, but it also relies on no-one else noticing. For once, the biggest ego in British politics must be hoping no-one’s paying him too much attention – for the moment, anyway.

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