Nigel Farage campaigning in Durham during the European election campaign. Danny Lawson/PA
brexit party

How Nigel Farage’s new party capitalised on Brexit chaos to surge into the lead in the Euro polls

Only officially established in February, the Brexit Party now looks set to come out on top when the votes are counted.

WITH ONLY DAYS to go until the European elections, pollsters in the UK are predicting that Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party is on course for a huge victory.

Having only being formally established in February, the party has come from nowhere to position itself as the chief representative of Brexit voters, with some polls suggesting that the party could receive 34% of the vote , which would be greater than the Labour and Conservative vote combined.

Even if the party falls short of these projections, the Brexit Party’s campaign has still defined an election that the UK never expected to have. 

UKIP’s collapse

The story of the Brexit Party begins with the decline of UKIP. The right-wing, Eurosceptic party that led the charge for an in-out referendum on the UK’s EU membership foundered following the June 2016 vote and the departure of Farage as leader.

The UKIP of 2019 scarcely resembles the party that rode a wave of immigration fears and austerity weariness to top the polls in the 2014 European election by securing 27% of the vote and returning 24 MEPs.

The day that Farage called ‘independence day’ – June 24, 2016 – marked a new chapter in the history of UKIP that saw it mill through several leaders (one of Farage’s successors lasted only 18 days), shifting dramatically to the fringes of the far-right and embracing members like activist Tommy Robinson, a former leader of the English Defence League.

To a large degree, it was assumed by its supporters that UKIP had served its purpose: a Brexit vote had been achieved and the UK was parting company with the European Union.

In the 2017 general election, the party’s vote share fell by 10.8% to 1.8%, while in the aftermath of this month’s local election the party has been left with only a few dozen councillors. Today, after a series of resignations and defections to the Brexit Party, only four UKIP MEPs remain. 

Farage has not been unwilling to criticise the party since his departure and in April he said that UKIP has “allowed the far right to join it and effectively taken over and I’m afraid the brand is now tarnished”.

Farage, who is still an MEP, swifty moved on following the Brexit vote – rubbing shoulders with US President Donald Trump, appearing on Fox News, and continuing to court controversy (and promote Brexit) on his LBC radio talk show.

Briefly, it appeared that Farage may have quit frontline politics for good. In 2017, he told The Daily Mail that he was “53, separated and skint” and insisted “there’s no money in politics”.

In recent interviews, Farage has pitched the Brexit Party as representing a reluctant return to the political frontline precipitated by Theresa May’s bungling of negotiations with the EU and a “betrayal” by the political elite.

The early days of the party did not suggest promising things to come. Leader Catherine Blaiklock was one of two senior figures forced out after previous offensive social media messages came to light. 

However, the roster of candidates secured by the party and unveiled to significant fanfare in April no doubt contributed to its success. Former Conservative MP (and Strictly Come Dancing star) Anne Widdecombe and journalist Annunziata Rees-Mogg (sister of Jacob Rees-Mogg) attracted media attention when they were announced.

European Parliament election Nigel Farage campaigns in Essex with Brexit Party candidates during the European elections. Joe Giddens / PA Images Joe Giddens / PA Images / PA Images

But the party has also stressed that many of its candidates are just “ordinary” people angered by the stalled Brexit process (and indeed it has recruited former nurses and soldiers, as well as musicians and statisticians, to run in the upcoming election).

Members of the Brexit Party credit Farage himself with the organisation’s rise. One candidate for the European elections in Kent, Stuart Piper, told The Guardian: “Whether you love him or loathe him, Nigel Farage had an enormous personal following down here.”

“He’s always been a great speaker, he’s always been very charismatic. And that’s a very difficult act for anybody to follow.”

The party has focused solely on pushing for a no-deal Brexit and Farage has declined to publish a manifesto ahead of the elections, telling the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that it had “a word association with ‘lie’”.

Interestingly, the Brexit Party has basically no members in the way a traditional party does, giving Farage nearly total control of the new party in a way he never had in UKIP. The party’s constitution gives Farage the power to appoint four to eight board members, as well as the chairman, and with paying “supporters” instead of members he has been able to avoid much of the bureaucracy and accountability that typically constrains leaders in the early days of a new party. Put simply, Farage has been able to turn the party into a vehicle for one single policy: a no-deal Brexit.  

Of course, a seemingly deep well of funding doesn’t hurt. Alongside 100,000 supporters, a string of wealthy Eurosceptics have followed Farage into the new party. While Farage has denied that close friend and Leave.EU founder Arron Banks is funding his new party, there is still no shortage of multi-millionaires involved, including property developer Richard Tice – another long-time Farage supporter.

Tory and Labour woes

Yet perhaps the greatest boon to Farage and his new party is the chaotic playing field of British politics in 2019. The failure to leave the EU on 29 March 2019 raised the hackles of hard Brexiteers and added further fuel to the idea that Theresa May’s premiership was in disarray.

The extension to 31 October, agreed with the EU in April, left open the possibility of the UK leaving before the European parliament elections. The failure to do so, as well as the collapse this week of talks between Labour and the Conservatives, has all helped Farage and the Brexit Party make the case for the idea that the 2016 referendum result has been “betrayed” and the only solution is a no-deal Brexit.

For the Tory Party, the fact these elections are taking place is a testament to the party’s woes in government, while for Labour they’re another electoral minefield to navigate as Jeremy Corbyn’s party tries to please both the leave-voting and remain-backing elements of his party’s support base.

With both main parties set to shed support, Farage is hoping that on 23 May he can both conquer his former party UKIP and garner the votes of people still holding out hope for Brexit.

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