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The Rise and Rise of Farage

Nick Clegg, the deputy Prime Minister, and Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party, will square off this week in the second of their three scheduled debates, this one on television. My confident prediction is that Farage will win hands down – again.

By general public consent, as reflected in several opinion polls, Farage took the first round last week with consummate ease.  Curiously, though, a number of political commentators gave the verdict to Clegg.  I didn’t myself tune into the debate, which was held on the LBC radio station, but my suspicion is that the difference in the appraisals between those of the public and those of the pundits reflects Farage’s standing with those respective constituencies.  

In political circles, Farage is dismissed as a mouthy taproom know-it-all who actually knows nothing.  He’s painted as the kind of public house bore – the slick-talking, pin-striped car salesmen of popular image – who camps at the end of the saloon bar lying in wait for unwary patrons, on whom he can dump his fatuous opinions on every subject under the sun.  The public at large, however, seems to have a quite different view of the man.  Either that, or they prefer the slick pin-striped salesman to the smooth-talking, posh-accented Conservative party factotums who show up on Newsnight and spill platitudes that convey nothing. 

His opinions and presentation may be derided by the mandarins in Whitehall, and those who are paid to write about them, but to the masses in the heartlands of the nation, in factories, shops and, yes, pubs, he gives them what they recognise as straight-talking, old fashioned common sense.  He says those things that politicians constrained by rules of engagement of their own devising dare not say.  The more the Establishment affects to despise him, the more popular he appears to be.   

Fag in one hand, pint in the other, his face twisted almost permanently into a scornful grin, Farage now looms as the one figure on the British political scene who strikes a chord with the voters.  As a result, UKIP will probably win the forthcoming European parliamentary elections.  This in itself may not turn the British political world on its head – European parliamentary elections being about as close to the hearts of British voters as those for the city council of Dubrovnik- but its value in terms of the party’s credibility – and of Farage’s – ought to serve as a warning to the main parties that the electorate is in no mood for further mumblings of weasel words – usually preceded by “we’ve been quite clear about this” – from a political establishment they are convinced no longer listens to them or wishes to.      

Farage had never, in my view, presented a cogent argument for voting UKIP.  His opinions are nothing but simplistic manifestations of populist prejudices.  But the message they deliver is that Westminster and Brussels between them have got everything all wrong.  To draw on a topical phrase from the show-business celebrity columns, the political classes and the general public have unconsciously separated.  David Cameron is seen as aloof and opportunistic, living in a glass tower populated by fellow Old Etonians whose hold on power they regard as an historical right. Clegg, self-promoted as the conscience of the coalition, comes across as a desperate gadfly, in power only because his party sold its soul to the Tories.  And poor old Ed Milliband, lurching from one presentational cock-up to the next, is seen as an oddball, but an oddball with a nasty streak (for screwing his brother David out of the Labour Party leadership).       

UKIP will not win the general election next year, of course, but it is not entirely inconceivable that it will be in a position to partner a Tory government, in the event Labour can’t muster enough support to win outright.

Cameron and Clegg, in the run-up to the election, need to start doing some straight talking.  They find themselves at a clear disadvantage inasmuch as whatever they say will of necessity be less clear-cut due to the restraints imposed by office and treaties.  The government is also hampered by the latent revolt of a coterie of Conservative back-benchers who, on the subject of Europe, are secretly more in tune with Farage than with their own leader.   

In short, the government has its back to the wall.  In those circumstances, the only response can be to come out fighting, for all the risks that entails.  

The same can be said of its confrontation with Alex Salmond and the Scottish National Party.  The conundrum there is that if the government attacks too stridently it displays the arrogance of which it stands accused, or at best looks panicked and resentful.  

Farage and Salmond are clever political operators though neither can muster the intellectual arguments that stand up to close scrutiny.  But they share a common appeal: Westminster is up its own fundament and has lost touch with ‘ordinary people’.  Cameron and Clegg need to get back in touch, and quickly, or, for all the hard-won improvements in the economy, electoral embarrassment looms for them – and a long hard winter of discontent for the rest of us.



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