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Time to stop Nigel Farage’s Trumpesque rise?

Nigel Farage at a Leave Means Leave rally at Central Hall in London. Picture: PA/Kirsty O'Connor - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

MICHAEL WHITE asks if it is now or never for remainers to stop Nigel Farage’s political rise.

Who did most corrosive harm to the tone of public debate on our television screens these past few days? Nigel Farage getting fake-furious with the BBC’s mild-mannered Andy Marr? Belgium’s Guy Verhofstadt for thinking it would be a good thing to cooperate with a local filmmaker’s fly-on-the-wall documentary about Brexit? Or Jeremy Kyle just being Jeremy Kyle, the star of ITV’s daytime exploitation circus?

Obviously none of them had a good media week. Kyle’s show was pulled after the suspected suicide of a guest who felt humiliated. Farage lost it when confronted with some motor-mouth outrages from his past much of which he denied saying, even when presented with archive evidence. For his part, the irrepressible Verhofstadt felt able to be Vince (“Bollocks to Brexit”) Cable’s star canvasser after the Liberal Democrats launched their European election campaign. He was filmed knocking on a single token door. A Lib Dem voter opened it! Defo a bad idea.

Perhaps Verhofstadt thought it was suitable atonement for his role in BBC Four’s Brexit: Behind Closed Doors programmes, whose cockily disdainful (“…finally turned them into a colony…”) tone rightly enraged pro-Leave activists.

How dare gap-toothed Guy and his minions show on-air contempt for “pathetic” Theresa May and her inept British negotiating tactics! “That’s our job,” the Moggsters failed to add as they closed in on their prime minister and her hopes of a dignified job-done departure later this year.

After a three hour cabinet meeting over the granular details, May caught Westminster by surprise with Tuesday night’s face-to-beard meeting with Jeremy Corbyn and No.10’s signalled a final ‘Meaningful Vote 4’ on a Withdrawal Agreement bill. It will take place in the week of June 4, whether or not she can cut a deal with Labour which doubts her ability to deliver her own unhappy side. Clearly the idea is that a Faragiste thumping for both main parties on May 23 will concentrate minds. Don’t hold your breath.

Even loyal husband, Philip, is rumoured to be wavering now. But hang on until July, Theresa, and you will overtake Gordon Brown (two years and 319 days), the Duke of Wellington (two years and 320 days) and Neville Chamberlain (two years and 348 days) in the Downing Street longevity stakes. Has no-one pointed out that all three premierships ended badly, though the victor of Waterloo helped stave off civil war over the Great Reform Act of 1832 – with restraint we might usefully remember today.

But in divided Britain it is impossible not to acknowledge that plenty of viewers watching Marr’s spat with (“the BBC is now the enemy”) Farage will have nodded in fervent agreement with his blustering evasions. He, not May, had coined the ‘no-deal is better than a bad deal’ formula, though the BBC’s archivists cannot find him saying it in the days when he was pro-Norway+ or Switzerland+. Ditto his comments on privatising NHS finance or denouncing “stupid” climate change policies.

Why ask about the past, Mr Farage kept asking, when the issue now is Europe.? Then why does he call a second referendum “the ultimate betrayal” when he once advocated one himself? No, he didn’t. Cue for clip of Farage doing just that and more bluster. Farage strikes me as the Jeremy Kyle of politics, harvesting fear and anger. Trust, betrayal, incompetence, Farage’s simple messages play brilliantly with disaffected voters – as they do for Donald Trump – even if they often turn truth on its head.

No wonder he is saving the Brexit Party’s manifesto until after the EU elections! So it was a pity Marr didn’t ask about those 3,200 Honda car jobs in Swindon now confirmed as disappearing by 2021. You have to kid yourself quite hard to say “Brexit has nothing to do with it”. Plenty do, as they persuade themselves that Kyle is on their side, not cashing in.

But the flip side of that is Lib Dem strategists who backed the demotic “Bollocks to Brexit” campaign slogan and also decided their prospects would be improved by the sight of fellow-Liberal Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator and not a man greatly displeased with himself, on the UK election trail. My hunch is that he is more likely to motivate Brexit voters than Remainers. As academic studies keep reminding us, it was the higher turnout in Brexit areas that clinched the 2016 referendum result.

It may do so again on May 23 unless Remain can strike a deeper chord than calling Farage a far-right, authoritarian, funded by dark, oligarch money. It may be mostly true, but it doesn’t work on its own, not least because in intolerant times the left has its own forms of bigotry, the Remain camp too.

The online rage directed against Emily Hewertson, a 19-year-old Tory-to-Farage activist, for her remarks in the Question Time bear-pit in Nottingham last week was not nice. Elderly Brexit voters (“old c***s”) got battered too. It’s not just Remain champion and London mayor Sadiq Khan who needs bodyguards or Remain women MPs who feel under threat. Someone hit UKIP bother boy ‘Tommy Robinson’ with an ice cream and spoiled his suit!

On the positive side how does the Team Remain line-up look with a week to go before polling day? Still a bit unclear, I’d say, though you can never tell. If stay-at-home Remain voters in 2016 took Ms Hewertson’s advice and turned May 23 into a substitute People’s Vote with a thumping result for unambiguously Remain parties it would be a moral victory, if not one measured purely in seats.

The tireless Gina Miller’s Remain United website offers voters in mainland Britain’s 11 election regions advice on how best to vote tactically – currently it’s Lib Dem in England, SNP and Plaid Cymru in Scotland and Wales – to reduce Brexit party wins from 25 to 22 and mainstream Leave parties (sorry, but that includes Labour as well as the Conservatives, Jeremy) from 35 to 32 between them. Remain parties, which include the Greens and Change UK as well as Lib Dems and Nats, would get 16 instead of 10, an extra three each from Labour and the Faragistes, according to ComRes/Electoral Calculus analysis.

Those calculations would be reworked if Labour moved unequivocally into the Remain camp or backed a People’s Vote which included a Remain option on the ballot paper, the website says. Well, yes, but that’s not going to happen despite mounting polling evidence that confirms those recent local elections results showing that Corbynite fence-sitting is costing the party votes from both sides of the Brexit fault line. YouGov’s EU election polling reports that the Lib Dems now have the backing of 28% of Remain voters in the referendum, against Labour’s 24%. Ouch!

Labour defections to Farage also helped put it on 16% – way down – the Lib Dems on 15%, Greens on 11%, Tories on a dreadful 10%. Grinning broadly on 34%, of course, is Nigel Kyle, who doesn’t have a manifesto beyond “Betrayed” and doesn’t want to be prime minister (“No, not particularly,” he told Marr). What he wants is for his MEPs to join the UK negotiating team. You can bet he won’t put himself forward, that risks taking some responsibility.

Jeremy Corbyn’s fence-straddling launch of Labour’s election campaign in Kent didn’t clarify much. It seemed to suggest Brexit is a second-order question compared with “the kind of society” we want to be, as if the two aren’t linked. If Labour can’t negotiate a “sensible” (ie. Labour) deal with May – hopes fading fast – or get a general election “Labour backs the option of a public vote”. Just eight words, including ‘a’ and ‘the’ at the end of a highly conditional, single sentence. Nice try, Jezza, but as Jess Phillips might say “You’re not a size 10 either. Too much vegan cake”.

As the media was primed to notice, Tom Watson, defeated by the fence squad at the NEC, pushed back with a defiant “Remain and reform” speech. His ally, Keir Starmer, gave a Guardian interview in which he warned that there aren’t the numbers in parliament for a May-Corbyn deal without a confirmatory vote being attached to it. Was that a defiant gesture too – or calculated triangulation with the connivance of the leader’s minders? Hard to tell.

In any case the success of the latest Farage relaunch, complete with £200,000 runaround money from chequered businessman, Jeremy Hosking (not another Jeremy!), has inevitably exercised its familiar magnetic pull: it dragged the Tories towards the Brexit cliff. But Monday produced more vaguely concerted pressure on May to end her talks with Labour. They have even offended loyalists, as they witness mass defections among their (in)activists and councillors whom decades of centralising Tory policy towards local government has clearly not left with enough to do.

Up to now I’ve avoided revisiting the near destruction of Canada’s venerable Progressive Conservative Party – the Tories – down from 156 to 2 MPs at federal level in 1993. It was the consequence of a split engineered by a western anti-Ottawa populist uprising, the Reform party, led by Preston Manning. After two more defeats the two parties merged in 2003 and won minority office in 2006, and a majority government in 2011 on small-state, low tax, law and order policies. In 2015 it lost to the glamorous Liberal dynast Justin Trudeau, but after another populist makeover it is itching for a rematch later this year.

British Tories know what happened in level-headed Canada and it scares those it doesn’t thrill. Like Finland’s in the Soviet era, Canada’s sovereignty – especially economic – is a delicate flower in relation to its large neighbour, Trump’s US which is currently picking trade fights in all directions, belligerently with Iran, dangerously with mighty China. Canada behaves with intelligent firmness, but carefully. It does not do much bluster.

Despite their vague enthusiasm for a Canada free trade agreement, I can’t see many would-be Tory leadership candidates in the Canadian mould. Change UK also seems to be guilty of throwing its weight around in an un-Canadian way when dealing with other pro-Remain boutique parties, this despite the Lib Dems promising to “kill them with kindness” by being nice instead of confrontational. That seems to be how Peterborough has ended up with rival anti-Brexit candidates for the June 6 byelection, instead of all Remain parties backing Femi Oluwole, the Our Future, Our Choice campaigner, which they apparently came close to doing.

As The New European has reported, Change UK blames Labour and People’s Vote strategists for discouraging such a candidacy. And Oluwole is politely saying that he’s no political experience, little time to plan a high-risk campaign and barely knows Peterborough. My pals wonder if the People’s Vote team was too concerned not to alienate Labour at a time when Starmer and Watson are still in with a chance of tipping the leadership into a firm commitment over a second referendum. It sounds all very tactical, but no worse than Tory leadership wannabes pitching for lower taxes and higher spending.

Voter enthusiasm for a second ballot still varies according to how the question is framed. Remain has been up to 10% ahead in assorted tracker polls since mid-2018, but I am wary, because an effective campaign and differential turnout could scorch that lead. The traumatic event that swings a decisive segment of ‘safety first’ voters behind Remain hasn’t happened for either domestic or international reasons. Sterling is becalmed, businesses and the super-rich quietly ship funds overseas, safe from Boris or Corbynism (they fear Corbyn more), and life goes on. Or seems to do so.

Perhaps one of president Trump’s international adventures will turn nasty and change everything. He is not a Canadian kind of negotiator and president Xi is not a Manhattan real estate hustler. But none of this is any reason for Verhofstadt and his team of bright-but-arrogant young officials to feel more smug than usual. On Saturday the repentant Brexiteer, Peter Oborne, wrote in his Daily Mail column that, if Theresa May gets clobbered as badly as seems likely on May 23, she will go back to Brussels for one last try at tweaking her deal ahead of that MV4 bid in June. Her top bagman, Olly Robbins, has been there this week. Irish backstop anyone? A customs ‘arrangement’ for manufacturing?

“You don’t really want this shower messing up your parliament at such a sensitive time” would roughly be May’s line. You do not have to be a Farage (“the EU will be banging on our door” after a hard Brexit) to see that the EU27 has more reason than they care to admit “to be afraid of Brexit” – as a French banker put it to me in the weekend sunshine.

Yes, it’s true that EU populist parties have watched the Brexit car crash and pulled back from their own Leave positions.

But that is just tactics for nationalist and populist politicians whose stock in trade is to deny whatever they said to please the crowd only yesterday in order to please it today. Their hopes for influence in the new Strasbourg parliament, which meets on July 1 to elect a new EU leadership, is not a majority, but versions of a blocking minority bent on “disintegration” of the European project, according to some expensive analysis.

Populist regimes currently rule in Italy (population of 60 million), Poland (38 million) and Hungary (almost 10 million), have influence in Romania (20 million), Austria (nine million) and elsewhere. Under Lisbon Treaty voting reforms designed to boost the power of major EU states, a blocking minority requires 14 states or states representing 35% of the population and at least four states. That is around 180 million. Britain’s continued presence, even on restricted terms, as a maverick pro-Brexit state with a population (66 million) near-identical to France, could help tilt policy and personnel choices the nationalists’ way.

The populist trio plus Britain is only one small state (ok, not Luxembourg) from a blocking minority in the Council of Ministers.

Of course, if Remain parties and candidates do much better than feared next week that fear would recede. Farage’s grin would give way to a snarl. “Betrayed” (by the voters). Over to you.

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