LONDON – Ever since a 2016 referendum put the United Kingdom on the path to leaving the European Union, British voters increasingly identify more with “leave” or “remain” than with political parties. That is a seismic shift, and only one party is positioned to capitalize on it if, as seems likely, the U.K. participates in the May 23 European Parliament election.
That’s the brand-new Brexit Party led by the anti-EU militant Nigel Farage. But it’s Farage’s longer game that should worry Theresa May’s Conservative Party.
As the former head of the anti-immigrant U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, Farage is a household name in Britain. In the United States, he may be familiar as the first foreign politician to win an audience with Donald Trump after the 2016 U.S. election. Trump later caused consternation in official circles when he tweeted that Farage would make a great U.K. ambassador to the U.S.
Since leaving UKIP in 2018, Farage has been one of Britain’s most prominent politicians. He has an ability, unique in British politics at the moment, to channel outrage while exuding amiability. His audiences get both a political speech and the sense that they are gossiping over a pint at the pub. It was this quality that caught the eye of Trump and his one-time chief strategist of nativist politics, Steve Bannon.
Farage’s party has no real structure, grassroots organization or election track record. Farage himself appoints the committee that appoints him leader, Soviet-style. But it would be a mistake to dismiss it as nothing more than a vehicle for capturing the protest vote.
Farage, ever attuned to the political mood, sees it as a way of realigning British politics. If he’s right, he will either force the Conservative Party to go where he wants it to go, or formalize the schism between the party’s pro- and anti-Brexit wings.
The problem for Farage is that the U.K. electoral system, with its winner-take-all rules, makes it difficult for smaller parties to break through. UKIP won 12.7 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election but landed only one seat in the House of Commons. (By contrast, the Conservatives improved their popular vote by 0.8 percentage points over the previous election but won 23 more seats.)
And yet those numbers are deceptive. Farage’s seven attempts to get himself elected as an MP failed, but UKIP under him was nevertheless a game-changer. The party won the 2014 European parliamentary elections, gaining 27.5 percent of the vote and 23 members. The relentless euroskeptic pressure and public profile of the anti-Europe party ultimately convinced then-Prime Minister David Cameron that the Conservative Party needed to hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain in the EU.
Cameron’s gambit failed and left the Tories more divided. Farage (once a Tory himself) is now the party’s worst nightmare since he speaks to so many Brexit-supporting Tory voters.
He is positioning his new party as both about one thing and about everything. Delivering Brexit is framed as the path to national renewal and to reviving Britain’s democracy. It’s both facile and fatuous (Brexit supporters can differ widely on economic, social and other policy areas) but highly effective in an era of reductive politics.
Farage has learned a few things from UKIP’s mistakes. His new party has distanced itself from most intolerant elements of his old one. Its chief executive had to resign over anti-Islamic comments and its treasurer was removed after anti-Semitic and other offensive statements were discovered in Facebook posts.
Moreover, the Brexit Party now has some serious Conservative bona fides. Ann Widdecombe, a former Conservative minister who had retired, announced a return to politics as a Brexit Party candidate for European Parliament. Annunziata Rees-Mogg, sister of pro-Brexit Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg, will also stand as an MEP for the Brexit Party. These are big names and carry weight among Conservative voters.
“Nigel Farage has been more successful than any politician other than Margaret Thatcher that I can think of in my lifetime in getting his agenda through, and he’s actually done it from outside Westminster,” Widdecombe said after announcing her candidacy. It’s hard to disagree.
Occasionally during his radio show, Farage will be tripped up by a caller who knows more about the details and costs of Brexit than he does. But watch Farage addressing the crowd in the strongly leave-supporting coastal town of Clacton recently and it’s apparent why those stumbles don’t matter.
“I cannot think of a time ever when the bond of trust that needs to exist between the government, Parliament and the people has been wider,” he told the crowd. Looking beyond the May 23 vote, he warned mainstream MPs, “Unless you listen to us, we will replace you.”
The European parliamentary elections provide an interesting test, if not quite a proxy for a broader election. EU elections are conducted according to what’s known as the D’Hondt system of voting (named after the 19th-century Belgian lawyer and mathematician Victor D’Hondt) in which the country is split into 11 electoral regions and parties submit a list of candidates in each region. The major parties normally do well under that system, but it also allows smaller parties to win more seats than they would in a general election.
Farage’s party would be expected to win the largest share of disgruntled Conservative pro-Brexit votes (possibly as high as 30 percent). The pro-remain vote is principally split between the new Change U.K. party, formed by a group of MPs who defected from the Labour and Conservative parties in February, along with Labour and the Liberal Democrats. That fragmentation gives Farage a big opening.
British voters normally ignore European Parliament elections (turnout last time was just over 35 percent). But given the gridlock in the U.K. Parliament, widespread dissatisfaction with both major parties and the absence of any other way to register displeasure, this one could attract more interest, even if Britain is still planning to leave the EU only months after the new MEPs take their seats.
But ultimately the stakes are bigger. The 2016 referendum was naively assumed to be the end of Farage’s single-issue political career. Instead, it has brought him into the mainstream of British politics, where he poses the same threat to the Conservative Party in 2019 as he did in 2015. If May can’t pass her Brexit deal, eventually a successor will have to decide whether the Tories will effectively subsume the Brexit Party or divide trying.
Therese Raphael is a Bloomberg writer.