Exeposé Features meet the leader of Britain’s most controversial political party, Nigel Farage.
EXETER’S Great Hall recently played host to one of its more curious weekend events: the UKIP party conference. Campus was flooded with more than the usual amount of tweed jackets and wealthy people. When I caught up with him, Nigel Farage was quietly lurking at the back of the hall. “Can we go outside?” he asks, “I’d like to have a smoke, and they won’t let me in here.” So far, so Farage.
Nigel Farage is certainly the politician of the hour. His poll ratings are up, the popularity of the EU is down, and he is increasingly
snatching the limelight from the other political big beasts. Many heavyweights in the main parties privately admit they are worried about the effect that Farage’s party, the “party for beer-drinkers, taxi drivers and patriots”, will have on the next election.
And Farage knows it. “The European Elections will be an opportunity for us to cause an earthquake in British politics”, he says with a mischievous grin. His recent appearances on Sky and the BBC are doing more and more to solidify UKIP as a serious and distinct challenger to Labour and the Conservatives. What are they offering which is so different? “The politics of principle”, Farage explains, “We’ve got some ideas and we’re not constrained by political correctness.” He knows all too well that his greatest strength, UKIP’s place outside the ‘political class’, may be the other parties’ greatest weakness.
Farage is keen on this distinction; being British politics’ most high profile ‘outside man’. He makes a point of distancing himself from the other party leaders, explaining this was part of his reasoning behind rejecting the much-speculated pact with the Conservatives after David Cameron’s promise of an EU referendum. “I don’t think I trust him. There are some people you can shake hands with and think a deal’s a deal, and I don’t really place Cameron in that category.” But he’s all too flattering about his fellow Westminster misfits. “I like Boris very much. And Michael Gove, I like Gove. If there was a different leader who would listen to our views, rather than dismiss them out of hand with insults, then maybe the situation could change.”
At this point of the interview, Farage’s phone goes off. “Hello, hello.”, he barks into his Blackberry, “I’m doing an interview, I’ll ring you back.” With a last deep puff, his cigarette burns down to the end, and he presses it into the ground with his patent leather brogues. “Where were we then?”
Given the recent problems some UKIP candidates have had in the local elections, Farage knows it isn’t all rosy in the UKIP garden. “There are one or two image issues that could be more positive”, he says, “perhaps we look a little old fashioned to some people.” As it moves into poll position as the favourite for the European Elections in 2014, UKIP is facing significant teething problems. Despite its efforts in Eastleigh, UKIP was unable to secure that all-important first seat in Parliament. Farage is aware of the ongoing predicament that he tends to get higher approval ratings than his party colleagues, but is adamant that a UKIP victory in Eastleigh wouldn’t have been assured by a little Farage charm. “I’m not particularly sure I would have done any better”, he insists dismissively, but with uncharacteristic evasiveness.
Given his experience losing to Speaker John Bercow in the 2010 General Election, he might be right. “I enjoyed running and I was freed from responsibilities of being party leader, which was a tremendous relief” Farage explains, with a throaty chuckle. Even on the subject of his plane crash, he seems unperturbed. “You do things in life; some of them work, some of them don’t, and it didn’t finish up very well but there you are.”
But he sees many, many green shoots for UKIP in the future. While right-wing parties tend to struggle with the youth vote, Farage’s UKIP have found it a lot easier to attract a fresher, younger demographic. For him, Europe is their golden ticket to getting beyond the grey vote: “We think Europe is a little back yard run by a load of unelected old men. Going round universities, there is a terrific amount of support for our ideas.” UKIP’s youth wing is reinventing itself, and may well end up sizeable force in student politics.
From the conference hall, we hear applause from the audience. An elderly lady waits patiently inside for an audience with the party leader. Farage glances towards the door, then his watch. It’s almost time for his big speech.
He still has time for one last hurrah. Nigel Farage is, for the moment, UKIP’s one-man-band, but his Deputy Paul Nuttal is increasingly moving into the spotlight. “He’s very young”, Farage notes, “but he’s bald so he looks old. Bald people always look old. They look ancient at 30, and at 80 they look young, it’s very very strange.“ With that, he rolls his eyes upwards, turns on his heel, and disappears inside.
UKIP has many problems, but after this conference, the party is definitely on a high. And with its politician-turned-celebrity, Nigel Farage, at the helm, we can expect to see much more from Britain’s political mavericks.
James Roberts, Features Editorbookmark me