Like those of all political upstarts, Nigel Farage’s career is marked by generous helpings of luck. His story is full of tantalising what ifs, and in this definitive biography Michael Crick makes the most of them.
Farage has survived three near-death experiences: twice in his early 20s, when he suffered a life-threatening car crash and then, months later, a misdiagnosed case of testicular cancer; and once in 2010, when on election day the plane in which he was flying for a publicity stunt got its banner caught in its tail fin and crashed in a field. Each time, Farage thought he would die; each time, somehow, he didn’t. He also benefited hugely from one death that did happen. In the 1997 general election James Goldsmith’s Referendum party outpolled the nascent Ukip by 8:1 and looked set to swallow its smaller, underfunded, chaotic rival. But then Goldsmith suddenly announced he was pulling back from politics and died of cancer 10 weeks after election day. Ukip picked up Referendum’s momentum and Farage never looked back.
He has a rare ability to seize his moment and turn recklessness to his advantage. Though we only have his own word for it, Farage does seem to have approached impending death with a certain sang-froid, like the warrior-soldiers of the first world war with whom he is obsessed. As his plane went into a nosedive, he resigned himself to his fate and longed for a cigarette. When he emerged from the wreckage, bloodied but relatively unbowed, he made sure to allow a photographer on the scene to capture the image. It’s a good metaphor for his political fortunes. Farage takes his chances, and though things often blow up – planes, parties, countries – he walks away and on to the next caper.
He’s also a seducer. This doesn’t just apply to his horribly messy love life, which Crick itemises with enough detail to convey the chaos. Some of the tales of wild womanising are boastfulness, some vengefulness on the part of embittered rivals or jilted lovers, but enough sound true to suggest that Farage doesn’t do boundaries. He’s insatiable, too, in his desire to have his political way with public figures who take his fancy.
In 2004, he persuaded the former Labour MP and TV host Robert Kilroy-Silk to join Ukip, against the warnings of party colleagues who said it would end in tears. Kilroy-Silk’s profile helped Ukip to its best ever result in that year’s European parliamentary elections, pushing the Lib Dems into fourth place. Inevitably, he and Farage fell out, but by then Farage had got what he wanted. In 2014 he encouraged Douglas Carswell to defect from the Tories, giving the party its first MP. He and Carswell could hardly have been more different: his new recruit was high-minded, cerebral and deeply uncomfortable talking about immigration. None of that applied to Farage, who soon discovered he couldn’t stand the man. But Carswell served his purpose, and then, before long, he was gone. Farage induced Ann Widdecombe to stand for his new Brexit party in the 2019 European elections. She won a seat. But where is she now? And where is Farage? Dominating the headlines as ever.
One word to describe this approach – if it weren’t a little pretentious for the Wodehousian world of Ukip – is Leninist. Many of Lenin’s Bolshevik colleagues worried that the party’s purity would be corrupted if they kept getting into bed with their political rivals. But Lenin’s line was why worry: they won’t corrupt us, we will corrupt them! Originally, Farage’s Ukip colleagues had argued that the party shouldn’t take up its seats in Strasbourg and instead should follow the Sinn Féin model of staying away (in that case from Westminster) to show principle. Farage disagreed: let’s go and see how much damage we can do. The answer, it turned out, was a lot, including to the EU’s generous expense accounts.
His cavalier attitude has unsurprisingly left a litany of feuds in its wake. Crick, a notoriously tenacious political correspondent for Newsnight and then Channel 4, has dug deep in the mire of Farage’s fallings-out. He is excellent at following a virtual paper trail, particularly when it involves electoral trickery. His book is fair-minded, frequently amusing, but too long, in part because he insists on revisiting all the petty battles over money, seats, and party positions that have bedevilled Ukip. David Cameron once described the party as made up of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” but here they emerge as more like a bunch of typical late middle-aged men, too many of them retired accountants with time on their hands. In the end, their endless fights about who shafted whom at which committee meeting gets a little wearing. Ukip has had 13 leaders over its three-decade history. But everyone knows there’s only one who matters.
The Farage left standing at the end emerges with two key characteristics on Crick’s account. First, though he is a sharp tactician, he is a terrible strategist. He has stood for Westminster seven times and lost each contest, in part because he is hopeless at picking winnable seats. When they do arise, he often fails to notice. In 2014, Carswell easily won the byelection he triggered with his defection to Ukip. But because the party poured its meagre resources into that seat, it missed the chance to defeat Labour in another byelection on the same day, when it lost Heywood and Middleton by just 2% of the vote. Even Farage’s signature policy (a referendum on EU membership) was one he stumbled across by accident. For years he believed – idiotically – that the best bet for getting out of the EU was to get enough MPs in parliament to win a vote there on the issue.
Second, Farage’s greatest gifts are his sense of humour and his stamina. Look up images of him on Google and see how often he is smiling. He can also get up and keep going the next morning whatever happened the night before, even after one of his legendary drinking binges. How he has survived the drinking is something even he doesn’t understand – as Farage says, many of his boozing buddies are now dead. The alcohol and the ability to laugh at himself are not things he shares with his current best political friend, Donald Trump, but the stamina is. Trump is one of the few people who seems to have seduced Farage rather than the other way round. Maybe that is the relationship that will finally end in tears for Farage himself.
Crick asks the inevitable question – did Farage make Brexit happen? The answer is: he was perhaps necessary but certainly not sufficient. He kickstarted many of the developments that other, shrewder operators were able to exploit. Yet without his recklessness they may never have got the chance. He is the greatest support act in the recent history of British politics. Given the fate of so many of the leads, there are probably worse things to be. And he’s not done yet.
• One Party After Another: The Disruptive Life of Nigel Farage is published by Simon & Schuster (£25). To support the Guardian and the Observer buy a copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.