The wolves at Brexit’s door as the noose tightens on leave options
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Michael White looks at the flip-flopping Nigel Farage as the noose tightens on leave options.
Wolves have been seen again in northern Belgium, wild ones, whose numbers are rising across Europe. But where are Nigel Farage and Henry Bolton, his latest stand-in as leader of UKIP, when you need them to denounce something? Fooling about, that's what.
Wolves are a bad thing, aren't they, enemies of civilisation down the ages, stalkers of tasty children in every scary-fairy story since Romulus and Remus got lucky and survived to found Rome? Well, that depends who you talk to. Free market theorists and some environmentalists have a soft, if only theoretical, spot for our fellow predators.
But wolves in Belgium, surely that must be a free kick for Kippers who so fear the wolves of Brussels? Apparently not. Nigel and Henry have been far too busy wrapped up in their own psycho-dramas to do much with the striking imagery.
Despite those Belgian wolves virtually at his door, ex-leader Farage was gladdening Blairite hearts last weekend by making his extraordinary (even by his standards) on-off-on-off call for a second Brexit referendum. As for Mr Bolton (54), the former trooper and regular army NCO left his wife for a self-styled actress-model and 'bad girl of Brexit', Jo Marney (25). In an online post, she wrote: 'He isn't a perv, he's a decent bloke and a family man.'
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Private grief, you may feel. Me too, except that it isn't. Plenty of Brexiteers lead sober private lives – the uxorious Jake Rees-Mogg springs to mind – but others are pretty rackety and romantic. Has not Peter Bone just parted from the legendary Mrs Bone, heroine of his PMQs interrogations? He has. So we are entitled to ask if chaos inside the Brexit world reflects a wider disorder in the way Team Brexit has been failing to negotiate Britain's departure from the EU in the easy way it promised? People who campaign on the compelling but dishonest slogan 'Take Back Control' are entitled to be judged by their own ability – or inability – to do so in their own, as well as the nation's affairs, by other than destructive means?
It is no coincidence that Donald Trump's White House is chaotic and poisonous, as Michael Wolff's Fire and Fury suggested in lurid terms. It is also no coincidence that Steve Bannon, who alienated the boss by boasting he was the brains behind Trump's victory, then backed slavery nostalgic, Roy Moore, in his Alabama election defeat, retaliated by shooting his mouth off to the other predatory Wolff about his rivals for Trump's ear.
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Predictably in the court of the Emperor Don, Bannon has had to be cast into outer darkness – even from own his Breitbart fake news baby. Like Republican France (Macron again demonstrates the tendency), all US administrations have a monarchical component that Britain's crowned republic, with its hereditary president, lacks. It leads to brutal Tudor court politics, albeit not always on a Trump scale.
We can all easily take a personalised argument – that Trump (Obama or the Clintons, for that matter) is uniquely evil or incompetent – dangerously too far, in either direction. It is rare that one side in any dispute has all the best arguments, though that unfrocked secular saint, Aung San Suu Kyi, has managed to put herself on the wrong side of one such rarity in Burma's dispute with its persecuted Rohingyas. Her ruined reputation should give us all cause to ponder.
Yet clever Dominic Lawson used his Sunday Times column the other day to suggest that the Brexiteers are lucky to have enemies as self-regarding and un-self-aware as Tony Blair and Nick Clegg, both second referendum men. Point taken. Alas, Lawson wrote it only days before a gun-toting Faragiste was charged with killing his wife and twice-wed Henry Bolton ran off with his popsy.
That, in turn, was days before Marney unleashed her racist Twitter rant against Meghan Markle and Bolton chose to drop her ('the romantic element of the relationship is over, I'm afraid') rather than be sacked by outraged Kippers. Wasn't Henry meant to be the grown-up who finally brought stability to the fast-disappearing post-Farage Kippers? He was. But not even Nigel – cheated of his knighthood and life peerage again in the New Year's Honours list – has been a reliable fount of UKIP wisdom so far in 2018.
What was the LBC radio shock jock, Bannon groupie and part-time MEP thinking of – apart from himself, obviously – when he made a series of zig-zag New Year pronouncements? They began in Brussels on Monday, when he repeated his opposition to such a Blairite idea after meeting Michel Barnier. It ended on the front page of Sunday's Observer where he conceded that Remain could win a second referendum because it is well-funded, making all the running and Leave (not him obviously) has stopped fighting its corner – 'in danger of not even making the argument,' as Farage put it.
In between he had floated the idea of Refo II on Thursday's edition of Channel 5's The Wright Stuff. 'What is for certain is that the Blairs, the Cleggs, the Adonises will never, ever give up. They will go on whinging and whining all the way through this process. So maybe, just maybe, I'm reaching the point of thinking we should have a second referendum… I think that if we had a second referendum on EU membership we would kill it off for a generation. The percentage that would vote Leave next time would be very much bigger.'
As you now know, because The New European readers keep up with the detail, a few hours later – probably many irate phone calls later too – Farage wrote a piece for Friday's Daily Telegraph explaining: 'To be clear, I do not want a second referendum, but I fear one may be forced upon the country by parliament. That is how deep my distrust is for career politicians.'
So much for the sovereignty of parliament. And Not-Sir-Nigel has been a 'career politician' for much longer than most MPs nowadays. He draws a higher salary (and £73,000 pension prospect) than most of them will ever do. But let that pass. There is much in all this to make a cat laugh and the Daily Mail duly mocked him as 'Flip Flop Farage'. But bookmakers slashed the odds and the likes of Chuka Umunna took comfort from the sound of Farage making what some Remainers regard as the first sensible thing he's ever said. That would be on Thursday, not Friday.
Let's try to show some sympathetic imagination instead. Just before Christmas a dejected Farage gave an interview to the Daily Mail which was headlined 'I'm 53, separated and skint'. In it he presented himself as a Brexit martyr, unable to feel safe on London's streets for fear of 'aggression and unpleasantness' from diehard Remainers. Shouted at, sworn at, pelted with eggs, and (not so funny) his wheel nuts loosened, he admitted to the boozer's curse of self-pity.
He'd move to the US, but loves England too much – and would miss the cricket at Lords (not the nearer Oval, you notice) and his military passions. No, I don't expect you to feel sorry for him, but it sounds miserable, living out of a suitcase on the campaign trail, fuelled by 'gin and adrenaline', increasingly aware that he may have let down his kids who suffer from having a hard-to-disguise name. He's suffered from car crashes and cancers I certainly didn't know about, the Mail reported. He met his first wife on the recovery ward.
A potent brew of fatalism, anger and genial saloon bar determination, simmers away in any Farage exchange. In at least two of his memoirs he has name-checked me kindly for taking seriously the concerns of UKIP voters before most of Fleet Street did, even attending its boozy, boisterous conferences in places like Skegness and Doncaster racecourse. No longer, I hope, because I distinguished between voter grievances, real and imagined, and crowd-pleasing non-remedies on offer from UKIP's leadership. Long before he lowered the tone of the Referendum debate and wider public debate, I marked Farage down as an intellectually lazy populist with a gift for the kind of ill-considered and ugly language that now rebounds in 'aggression and unpleasantness' towards him on the street.
Ken Clarke once joked that too many of his pro-Brexit colleagues on the Tory benches are middle-aged men who think their lives have not been sufficiently exciting. With his colourful City past, long boozy lunches and bursts of work among 'lunatic' speculators in the metals market, his knack for publicity and 25 years in public life, albeit seven times defeated for parliament, Farage shouldn't be one of them. He just sounds as if he is.
Talent and drive are important, but temperament and motivation also matter in politics. In its own response to what it called Farage's attention-seeking flip-flop on Refo II, the thoughtful ConservativeHome website's Mark Wallace described 'the division between self-indulgence and self-denial (as) the key fracture within the Eurosceptic movement', between Leave EU and Vote Leave in 2016. Arron Bank's subsequent 'Bad Boys of Brexit' confessions confirm that for him it had all been a bit of a giggle – as it clearly remains.
But Farage, Wallace argues respectfully, understood what it took to make UKIP a serious force, less fringe, more mainstream, less self-indulgent, more self-denying. Having been present when Farage once rejected his party's manifesto after reporters pointed out that much of its glib populism was actually unpopular, I think that's generous.
That said, Wallace is surely right to argue that Farage's discipline slipped as the 2016 campaign proceeded. Having been denied the chance to run the overall Leave campaign, his conduct – remember the '75 million Turks' poster, or 'without a single bullet being fired' comment after Jo Cox was killed? – threatened to drive floaters away. Since unexpectedly winning after saying a 52:48% mandate for Remain would require a fresh vote, he's fuelled 'betrayal' rhetoric without ever contributing to the serious process of delivering a Brexit that might work – or at least minimise damage. And now this 'self-indulgence with bells on… just for the benefit of proving to himself that people still care about what he says in his retirement'.
Ouch. But UKIP shared the fastidious ConHome's alarm. So did the more muscular Brexit Central website which also accused Mr Farage of 'giving himself a major publicity boost' (and another to 'Diehard Remainers') while actually damaging the case for occasional referendums to decide major constitutional issues. How damaging would it be if they were staged until the 'elite' got the result it wanted, asked Brexit Central's duty-blogger, Hugh Bennett?
It has been know to happen elsewhere in the EU, though not in France, of course, where the Republican elite treads warily because the sans-culottes cut off heads in France. But what Farage has done, as James Blitz argued in the FT's Brexit blog, is given Remainers the cover to say 'I agree with Nigel' – that's Thursday depressed Nigel, not Friday's perkier Nigel or the Observer's Nigel on another downer.
It won't happen anyway, not unless there is a major sea-change in public opinion over Brexit and, possibly not even then. We are not in rational territory here, for many people Brexit is about identity, it is not all about fulfilling promises, especially economic ones, as Trump's continued success shows. Yes, I know the US economy is cooking nicely and ours doing better than 'Project Fear' (copyright, the SNP in 2014) predicted – so far.
How ironic that the SNP government in Holyrood this week published a survey warning of the high cost to Scotland of leaving the EU's single market/customs union under Brexit, when it dismisses near-identical arguments made against Scotland leaving its own even more important trade arrangements with rUK, and rEU's ongoing hostility to breakaway Catalonia. Irrational? If you watched Monday night's BBC Panorama's report on Trump's first year, which shrewdly interviewed only Trump supporters (a master stroke), you may have noticed that it was all about feelings, not facts. Devastating stuff.
Similar patterns are visible over Brexit where the day-to-day data continues to be mixed, as usual, and the longer term economic future highly uncertain. Polls reflect all this, including modest gains for Remain in recent months, but not game-changers. Lots of voters are bored by detail and just want Theresa May's lot to get on with it. They're not too bothered by London Mayor Sadiq Khan's impact analysis either. Perhaps they should be and will wake up too late, but that's where we are.
YouGov's latest survey for the Times reports that 36% want a Refo II (up from 32% in October), but that 43% don't. The young favour a second vote, by a substantial 23% among the 18 to 24-years-olds who backed Remain in 2016 and – hey ho – Brexit's Jeremy Corbyn in 2017. What such findings do is encourage those who want Labour to take a bolder, more coherent stance in favour of single market (or similar) membership with a splash of ECJ arbitration, and/or a second referendum.
Don't wait by the phone for Team Corbyn to respond constructively to that, is still my advice. It rejected a cross-party SNP initiative to coordinate a single market strategy the other day and still seems too busy consolidating its self-defeating hold over the levers of party power to concentrate. That, and reshuffling shadow ministerial posts among MPs most voters have never heard of. Labour insiders promise a shift by April.
Is the Carillion crash a 'watershed moment' on Corbynite Labour's march to power, as Jez's latest video suggests? Probably not. The sharpest political critique of the government's failure to handle this week's slow-motion fall of its over-stretched, bonus-and-dividend-profligate contractor, Carillion, have come from technocrats like Adonis, Uncle Vince Cable and Lib Dem pensions buff, Steve Webb, not from the 'nationalise-the-lot' crowd who were playing catch-up too.
The TUC has done better. But the trade body representing small and medium enterprises (SMEs) – the kind of business which will lose money owed by Carillion because of Whitehall's failure of due diligence – this week declared its members still pro-Brexit, as big stock-exchange-listed companies like Carillion are not.
That said, it is not hard to see why Nigel Farage is getting twitchy over and above his basic need for attention. It is hard not to detect the noose gently tightening on hard Brexit options, the relentless consequence of May's botched election gamble. David Davis's letter to May, with its Farage-esque note of self-pity, was leaked to the FT, warning of looming EU discrimination against vital UK sectors.
This from the Brexit Bulldog, one of the 'no deal better than bad deal' crowd. Yet that is not what May or Philip Hammond are saying or signalling in January 2018. The PM finally met City bigwigs – Emmanuel Macron has been far more welcoming, as he has even to Trump – last week and promised to prioritise a 'bespoke deal' for Britain's biggest exporter, neither Canadian nor Norwegian.
Pie in the sky? Perhaps, but EU politicians are discussing an extended transition ('implementation' in MayBot-speak) and how to squeeze more residency rights for EU citizens in Britain during it. But officials are also letting it be known they are taking steps to prepare for a hard Brexit just in case, to the distress of the Bulldog, who is not doing the same very convincingly. Chancellor Hammond, his Berlin excursion (with the Brexit Bulldog on a lead) reportedly not as persuasive to German policy-makers as hoped, is also talking with renewed confidence of greater market and customs alignment.
This 'Establishment fights back' stuff is not what hard Brexiteers like footloose Farage or the more uxorious Jake Mogg want. And it may all come crashing down in a cloud of wishful thinking, much like Carillion has done. But the Jakes and Nigels haven't provided detailed road maps of their own, they just want out.
Farage's interview with the Mail gave a possible insight in that too. Divorce is painful, he admitted. 'But things in relationships often run their course and what can you do? Do what millions of people do and pretend it's all ok for the rest of your life?' At that point he leaned forward and whispered 'They're miserable too, aren't they?'
Miserable too, Nigel? What was all that guff about 'independence day?'