Nigel Farage has spent the past two-and-a-half years acting as a kind of pseudo-journalistic spectator, yelling from the sidelines as others attempt to clear up the Brexit shit-heap. He’s started his own LBC show, become a Fox News contributor, launched an £85-a-ticket talking tour named An Evening with Nigel Farage, and even starred as a novelty sidekick on Donald Trump’s Presidential Campaign. But now, as the Brexit finale approaches, Farage has returned to frontline politics with a new venture: The Brexit Party.
Announced in early February, the Brexit Party’s aim is to push for a “Hard Brexit” and to stand in the European Parliament elections in May if Article 50 – the countdown clock for when Britain leaves the EU – is extended beyond the 29th of March, 2019. At the moment, an extension looks quite likely, with parliament’s various bickering factions unable to agree on May’s deal, no deal, or any other vaguely coherent exit strategy.
The Brexit Party claims to have already attracted over 100,000 supporters. But this is a pretty misleading figure, because gaining supporter status simply involves ticking a box and typing in your name and email address – unlike the membership process for most political parties, which normally requires a financial contribution.
In terms of actual politicians, seven MEPs have joined so far. All of them are former UKIPers who left in protest after its current leader Gerard Batten – a man who describes Islam as a "death cult" – aligned the party with the Luton-born far-right leader, Tommy Robinson. The mass exodus that followed was of course led by Farage, who at the time wrote a bleary-eyed piece in the Telegraph claiming that UKIP had morphed into something "unrecognisable" and that he had a "heavy heart" at leaving.
But for all his oh-but-darling-of-course-I-condemn-racism posturing, Farage's decision to leave UKIP in an apparent rejection of extremism always smelled of bullshit. Just months prior, he claimed in an Infowars interview that the European left was "allied with radical Islam" and wanted to "abolish the nation state". And who could forget "BREAKING POINT", the campaign poster of Syrian refugees he unveiled back in 2016?
No surprises, then, when just days after its launch it emerged that the Brexit Party’s founder Catherine Blaiklock had a history of anti-Muslim comments. In a series of blog posts and articles, she claimed that "Muslim men were impregnating white British girls to create Muslim babies", moaned about "demented older black men" and harangued a British charity for the supposed unfairness of its trainee scheme for BAME workers.
And it’s not just Blaiklock. Among the Brexit Party’s other seven MEPs are Bill Etheridge, who gave a speech to the UKIP youth wing in 2013 encouraging them to study Hitler's oratory skills; David Coburn, who once compared Scottish government minister Humza Yousaf to the convicted terrorist Abu Hamza; and Nathan Gill, who has said that climate change is not man-made. Another member likely to join is Steven Woolfe, best known for getting one-banged by a fellow UKIP MEP inside the European Parliament.
So, rather than the minty-fresh, politically-pragmatic project it’s being pitched as, the Brexit Party is that same old purple-yellow blend of bigotry and incompetence. But that won’t bother Farage, because the primary focus of his persuasion isn’t the musky old membership records of UKIP, but the frenzied back-benches of the Tory party.
For months, Brexiteer Tory MPs have been making noises about a split in the party if the government implements a Brexit that’s too soft for their liking. The European Research Group’s constant scuppering of Theresa May’s plans led to Tory Business Minister Richard Harrington declaring last week that the ERG should defect to the Brexit Party because "they're not Conservatives". Farage responded on Twitter, "Sounds like a good idea."
So it’s pretty clear that Farage is hoping to mesh the pools of disaffected UKIP and hard-right Tory politicians to form one giant bloc with him at the helm. Many commentators on the right seem to think that the inclusion of some ex-ERG Tories with the UKIP old-guard would give Farage an element of credibility that’s currently lacking. But to believe that is to forget the state of the Tory party.
Just last week, Rees-Mogg himself appeared on Question Time defending Churchill’s legacy by saying British concentration camps in South Africa during the Boer War were only as bad as Glasgow (not a typo). A couple of weeks earlier, fellow ERG member Mark Francois responded to criticism of Brexit from German Airbus CEO Tom Enders with a cringe-worthy statement declaring that he – like his "D-Day veteran" father – would not be bullied by "any German".
Depressingly, this bollocks isn’t even confined to the back-benches: just take then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson labelling Burkha-wearing women "letterboxes", or Home Secretary Sajid Javid lamenting "sick Asian pedophiles", as if their race was a defining part of their criminality.
In many ways, grouping this deluded lot in with Farage would make for a more logical political landscape. But, for all their social-care cuts and general Dickhead Energy, the Conservative Party of the 21st Century hasn’t always been this openly bigoted. It's only since Farage and his brand of neo-fascism appeared on the scene and began winning votes that Tory MPs decided en masse to start blowing the xenophobic dog-whistle. It worked in 2015, but look where we are now.
Farage isn’t just the architect of Brexit, but of a nastier, greedier and more polarised politics. His new party may have the same group of base politicians, the same target demographic and the same slippery frontman, but with its sights set firmly on the fringe of the Conservative party, it’s twice as dangerous.