So Nigel Farage returns – again. It’s hard not to be cynical about the reasons for the ex Ukip leader’s latest political rebirth, but given the almighty mess his Brexit crusade has created, Farage is at least facing the music. Or seems to be.
As ever, “debate” with Nigel is a fairly restricted affair.
He says he’s making himself available to all-comers on a Britain-wide bus tour organised by the Leave Means Leave group which opposes Theresa May’s Chequers plan for Brexit. Whether that means he will actually engage with critics over the massive difficulties of quitting all EU trade mechanisms next March is another matter.
But, you’ve got to admit the guy’s got a nerve. After all the false promises posted on buses during the European referendum campaign, you’d think Farage would avoid the mere mention of this mode of transport.
As Rory Bremner joked this weekend; “Boris didn’t need to lie in front of bulldozers, he’s already lied before a bus.” But Nigel’s willingness to return to the scene of the crime – without apology – emphasises the difference between himself and Theresa May’s band of soft Brexiteers.
Politicians like Jeremy Hunt warn of a catastrophic no deal Brexit, then retract their words within hours. But Farage sticks unashamedly to his guns and is now cheerfully heading back into the most contested political terrain in Brexiting Britain – his own dodgy claims about cash rebated from the EU being available to boost the NHS here.
So will it work?
Despite his considerable chutzpah, Farage’s “return to frontline politics” may actually damage Jacob Rees Mogg, the hard Brexiteers and the cause they all support because he is a one-man band who doesn’t do collaboration and because political times have changed.
The BBC breathed a sigh of relief when Ukip’s elimination at the polls in 2017, ended the broadcaster’s extensive and highly criticised dalliance with the party. Somehow unable to resist his provocative allure, Farage had become the most frequent guest on BBC Question Time, despite representing a party without a single seat at Westminster or Holyrood. If Aunty jumps to slot the Ukip MEP straight back into programmes, Aunty will stand accused of bias and naked political preference. Nigel’s reappearance isn’t a gift to the hard Brexit camp either, raising further questions about who is the real leader – Tory toff Rees Mogg, racist dog whistler Boris or himself – the old Brexit King across the water?
Of course, Nigel on a bus tour of England is a nightmare for the hesitant leaders of the two main parties – Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn.
The Prime Minister needs this challenge from a populist demagogue like a hole in the head – not least because Farage maintains detailed “no deal” planning due to be published later this week is just a tactic to scare the population and scupper Boris’ chances of replacing her.
Mind you Jeremy Corbyn will also be praying that a re-energised Ukip doesn’t emerge to challenge his party again in its former northern heartlands.
In fact, the reappearance of Nigel Farage in a dreadfully caricatured Groundhog Day, helps only two sets of political players. The first is the SNP, which can use the Ukip leader’s return to highlight the difference in political cultures north and south of the Border. Whilst Nigel is the talk of the town and a politically potent force down south, Ukip got nowhere in Scottish elections even when he was leading it. If Farage turns the Brexit campaign into a sea of Tory schisms or descends into a nasty anti-foreigner rant, he will only encourage many swithering Scots to believe England truly has become a different country.
The second group likely to benefit from Farage’s return is the People’s Vote campaign. One million pounds richer this weekend after a whopping donation by a fashion mogul, this all-party, no-party group occupies the void created by Labour party indecision and is getting very well organised.
Indeed Nigel’s first foray back into Brexit land went slightly sour this weekend, courtesy of the same kind of online intervention that’s worked so well for Yes campaigners in Scotland.
Tweeting after his LBC radio programme on Sunday, Farage described BMA warnings of a heightened risk of a flu or measles pandemic after a no-deal Brexit as “an absolute disgrace”.
Rachel Clarke, a palliative care doctor from Oxford responded with a series of tweets that began: “As an NHS doctor who cares for terminally ill inpatients, let me tell you what’s disgraceful. Disgraceful is an NHS hospice forced to close a third of its beds because some its nurses – wonderful, extraordinarily kind individuals – feel so unwelcome now they have been driven home to Spain, Portugal, Italy.”
Dr Clarke’s response had 31,000 likes last night (Sunday). The last time round, Farage was up against relatively unpopular party politicians. This time his opponents are outraged professionals who will question, huckle and harry him every step of the way.
Of course, there are a few big names in the People’s Vote campaign – some came to Edinburgh this weekend and attracted a lot of UK press coverage for a demonstration with hundreds of supporters. Meanwhile 16,000 people gathered in Dundee to call for a second independence vote with next to no coverage in the same UK papers. The difference in turnouts should sound a small cautionary note to People’s Vote organisers. No matter how much they think Nicola Sturgeon should be leading the charge for a second Brexit vote, Remain-voting Scots feel our views on the matter are already clear and roundly ignored. So People’s Vote campaigners must take a leaf out of Nigel’s book and focus their efforts on the hostile and hopeless voters of northern England, not affluent cities and converted Celts. Because the biggest problem facing Nigel Farage is that the days of Eurowaffle are over. The Ukip MEP used to get away with empty assertions like; “Theresa the Appeaser has produced a set of ideas that are nothing more than a cowardly sell-out.” But it’s too late for that. Undecided English voters urgently need to hear a workable alternative plan.
Months of hand-wringing and scape-goating could consign Nigel Farage to the history books as the man who tried and failed seven times to become an MP and whose final comeback helped torpedo the cause that made his name. Here’s hoping.