If the Government drop the ball on Brexit, expect Nigel Farage to make another return

If the Government drop the ball on Brexit, expect Nigel Farage to make another return

At the 2020 Spectator Parliamentarian of the Year Awards last week, a special prize was announced, a one-off, the ‘Disruptor of the Decade’. Not surprisingly the recipient was Nigel Farage. As he accepted it, he told Westminster’s great and good that “unless this Government drops the ball, and I don’t think it will, you will never, ever see me again”. And he means it.

“You’re a Eurosceptic, aren’t you?” he asked me in the old O’Farrell’s bar in the Place Luxembourg outside the European Parliament. “And a journalist, and take the mick”.“Well yes”, I admitted, and after less than a thumb’s width of beer later I had agreed to work for Nigel Farage’s group in the European Parliament.

That was in the dog days of 2004. I’d been there since 1999, initially as a Tory staffer and latterly writing my own satirical newspaper, founded when I realised that no matter what the UK did, it wouldn’t wash. The idea of being in Europe, but not run by Europe was a busted flush: two years of working in the Parliament had shown that to be the case, without any space to doubt.

So, despite the fact that my Tory colleagues had a book on me being the first of the new staffers to go native, I found myself politically homeless by late 2000.

There were attempts to stop me leaving; the Chairman of the Tory Party Board had phoned up promising me all sorts of nice things if I gave up my magazine. One colleague – latterly a minister, then humiliated, and no longer in the House – was very clear: “Gawain, you know you have a great career in the Conservative Party… if only you would give up, or at least compromise on those principles”.

But more seriously, joining what seemed to be the political equivalent of the raggle taggle gypsies of my childhood fairy tales, was career death.

“Once you’ve worked for them, nobody, nobody will ever employ you again – not in Brussels, not in London,” sage voices would tell me. And to be fair they were not entirely wrong.

Back in 2004, twelve years after the great Maastricht debates and Euroscepticism had been sanitised and sidelined in the Tory Party – barring a few honourable exceptions – and banished from Labour, while UKIP were surging on 1.5% in the polls. And the party had just gone through the extraordinary experience of Robert Killroy-Silk. It wasn’t a very propitious moment to join up.

But there is an honesty of purpose and decency of approach from Farage that struck a chord. It became clear that there was something about him; no, not the heroic sessions and PFLs (though they were fun), but a knack of ‘getting it’.

One thing most parliamentary staffers learn pretty rapidly is that it takes about 30 minutes to ram down enough information for their charges to be able to burble effectively for about three.

With Farage that ratio is reversed. Although the ‘Hail fellow’ persona is pretty accurate (I recall a talking head on a breakfast TV sofa opining wisely about Farage’s ‘brilliant strategy, of looking normal, like a bloke who likes a pint’, errr… that ain’t no strategy), what set him apart was something different.

It is his ability to synthesise real information, statistics and the like; and drawing on a hinterland of history, reading and personal business experience, he is able to regurgitate it, in what an editor of the Today programme once described as ‘fluent human’. It is remarkable given that the principle practice of a politician is the comprehensible relaying of information and ideas, how very few are any good at it.

He is, very. How he managed to build a campaign from the ground up and in only a couple of decades force a very reluctant government and Parliament will be the subject of many PhD theses of the future.

To have two electoral vehicles virtually from scratch is no mean feat: it requires huge efforts on the part of volunteers and money – oh, it always needs money – and it requires thousands prepared to do the grunt work, in vile weather and, in the case of UKIP particularly, against a universally aggressive press and public weal. But to do it requires belief and trust.

Trust that in the end this character will stand up for what he or she believes whatever the circumstances.

So he is off, but can I suggest people take heed of his warning. Back in 2016, straight after the referendum, Farage stood down and at that press conference he made it very clear that he would be back if the Government reneged on its word over Brexit. “If the terms aren’t right,” he said, “I will do whatever I can to help people to make it right.” Hello Brexit Party.

They scoffed then. Maybe they might be a little more circumspect today.