“We have been betrayed!” Nigel Farage, the gaudy Brexiteer, told Andrew Marr, of the BBC, in an interview on Sunday. “Not just by the Conservatives; Labour have done the same thing, too.” Farage is the frontman for a new outfit: the Brexit Party, which will have its first big chance to make noise in the elections for M.E.P.s—members of the European Parliament—to be held in the United Kingdom on May 23rd. So far, the Brexit Party is leading in the polls, by a wide margin. This week, in a YouGov survey, it garnered thirty-four per cent, more than the combined total of the next two parties, Labour (sixteen per cent) and the Liberal Democrats (fifteen). The Green Party came in fourth, with eleven per cent, leaving Prime Minister Theresa May’s governing Conservative Party in fifth place, with just ten per cent—a humiliating position that underscores her government’s inability to get Parliament to approve the Brexit withdrawal agreement that she negotiated with the European Union. But the failure is more general. No other traditional party has stepped into the breach. Remainers, who would prefer to call off Brexit, are fractured. (The Change party, formed by Tory and Labour defectors, polled at just five per cent, having failed to form a coalition with the Lib Dems, who are Remainers.) There are no leaders—or none, apparently, able to outdraw a fairly obvious charlatan.
Farage himself is a longtime M.E.P., a position that has allowed him to lounge in various E.U. installations, telling his colleagues how much he despises them. (It’s mutual, by all accounts.) He had been the leader of the U.K. Independence Party, and in the 2016 referendum on Brexit he went on the campaign trail with a truck-sized poster, showing a crowd of migrants captioned “Breaking Point.” (Marr asked if he stood by the poster; after some hemming, Farage said, “It was the truth, and if you think about that poster it’s transformed European politics.”) Farage left ukip in December, after its new leader, Gerard Batten, moved it in an even farther-right, more crassly anti-immigrant, anti-Islamist direction. Or maybe he just saw a better market opening for his brand of political entrepreneurship. Farage’s new party is built on a complaint: Brexit hasn’t happened. The exit from the E.U. was scheduled for March 29th, and now is set for October 31st. (If a withdrawal agreement isn’t approved by then, there could still be a chaotic No Deal Brexit.) And yet the bulk of the responsibility for the delay lies with hard Brexiteers like Farage, who refused to admit that they had promised voters impossible things in the referendum. (Notably, that the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the E.U., could be simultaneously open and hard.) In his interview with Marr, Farage was still going on about how easy it all would have been if May hadn’t “willfully deceived us.” Both major parties, Farage said, had broken trust so profoundly that people “outside central London” wondered whether they still lived in “a democratic country.”
“You keep using that word ‘betrayed.’ ” Marr said.
“No,” Farage said, with an affronted air—he had used the word seventeen seconds earlier—“ ‘Democracy’ is the word I keep using.” He continued, “The problem is this: the country very clearly wants us to stand up and be who we are. Our political class do not believe in Britain. They simply don’t think we’re good enough to run our own affairs.” Betrayal, then. The treachery of the élites is his theme and “betrayed” and “betrayal” are stock words in his interviews and speeches, including in his announcement of the party’s founding.
Marr had premised a number of his questions on the idea that, if the Brexit Party really wanted to bring Britain’s party system crashing down, then it was worth figuring out what it wanted as a replacement. But Farage proclaimed questions about policy “ridiculous” or “ludicrous.” The Brexit Party has no manifesto, he said, because “ ‘manifesto’ to me has a word association with ‘lie.’ ” He shrugged off contradictory statements he has made; when asked how he could say, at various times, both that he had come to support a second referendum, and that such a vote would be “the ultimate betrayal,” he claimed that he had just been “mentally preparing” for different outcomes. He denied having said things even when Marr had video of him doing it, and claimed to have said things for which Marr could find no trace. For example, Farage said that he had coined the phrase “no deal is better than a bad deal,” with regard to Brexit, and proclaimed it daily during the referendum campaign. Marr said that he and his colleagues had looked back at his appearances, and “we can’t find it.”
“Well, you’d better look closer,” Farage told him.
All this will sound very familiar to Americans who have been watching President Donald Trump—something that Farage, who has a mutually admiring relationship with him, has clearly done, right down to the attacks on the media. For example, Trump regularly tells crowds that the “fake news” media refuses to film them. Farage, soon after Marr asked him whether he still believed that “worrying about global warming is ‘the stupidest thing in human history,’ ” announced that he had been “speaking at packed rallies every night, and you know who’s not there? The BBC. And from this line of questioning now I can see why. You’re just not interested, are you?” After the interview, he called the BBC “the enemy.”
But the question remains: Where in British politics is the counter to the resentment and the populism—along with the real, earned dismay at the incompetence of Parliament—when it comes to Brexit? The thirty-odd per cent that the Brexit Party is polling is far from a majority, but the basic problem of Brexit politics is the lack of a coherent majority anywhere. Cross-party talks on a Brexit compromise have stalled. A second referendum doesn’t seem to be on offer. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, has proved adept at hiding his own position, in order to paper over divisions in his party, but not at actually leading anyone anywhere, except perhaps to a new general election.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the European elections as a mere sideshow in the fight among Britain’s parties, either because the U.K. will withdraw its M.E.P.s should Brexit go through, or because the Parliament is viewed, by many, as mostly just the showy part of a make-work E.U. bureaucracy. The U.K. is not out of the Union yet, and it will be sending seventy-one M.E.P.s to the Parliament, nearly a tenth of the total. The European Parliament does have real functions and effects—for example, it has a role in choosing members of the European Commission, which does much of the E.U.’s work, and in approving legislation. And it is an incubator of political parties and of transnational party alliances, for example among Europe’s various populists. In this sense, the European elections may become not just a barometer of discontent but a part of the process of the breaking of ties between voters and traditional parties. (This is particularly, but not exclusively, true for the Conservative Party.) Having cast one ballot for the Brexit Party in the European elections, a voter might be more willing to cast another for it in the general election—or to opt for another alternative yet to emerge. Farage is not wrong about this being a moment of high risk for British politics.
“You’re in denial,” Farage told Marr. “The BBC is in denial, the Tory and Labour parties are in denial, I think you’re all in for a bigger surprise Thursday week than you can even imagine.” And what does Farage imagine will happen after that?