It was one of the most memorable images of the last election. On the morning the polls opened in 2010, Nigel Farage, a British member of the European Parliament, was photographed in the wreckage of a small aircraft, which had crashed soon after takeoff when a banner for his UK Independence Party tangled with the plane’s tail. Though he suffered cracked ribs, a broken sternum, and a punctured lung, Farage soon bounced back, in the manner of Mr. Toad, a character from The Wind in the Willows who is ever-bumptious, misguided but irrepressible.
Three years on, that energy is paying off. In a recent by-election, caused by the resignation of Liberal Democrat Chris Huhne, the former secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, who had to give up his seat after he admitted to lying about traffic offenses, Farage’s Independence Party increased its vote from 4 percent to 27.8 percent—what Farage immediately declared a “national political earthquake.” And certainly Prime Minister David Cameron and his Conservative Party, which was beaten into third place, have felt the tremors.
That Farage, with his private-school background and Home-Counties golf-club swagger, should become England’s foremost anti-establishment politician is largely a symptom of conservative discontent with the prime minister’s attempt to detoxify and modernize his party. In 2006, the year he won the leadership contest, Cameron tried to marginalize the party Farage helped to found by telling a radio station that “UKIP is sort of a bunch of ... fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists mostly.”
Farage defied that stereotype, and in the 2009 European parliamentary elections steered his party to the second-highest share of the popular vote, his 2 million votes exceeding those won by Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Though Euro elections have famously low turnouts, and mainly animate voters who are avidly anti-EU, UKIP is currently predicted to come first in next year’s elections.
Therein lies the paradox. Farage’s main platform is in the Strasbourg-based Parliament where, a few years ago, he famously described Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian president of the European Council, as possessing the “charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of low-grade bank clerk.” The colorful personal attack delighted the British tabloids, and Farage’s call for complete withdrawal from the EU continues to appeal especially to older Brits who view the continent with suspicion. (A tell-tale sign of a UKIP supporter is the use of the phrase “EUSSR.”)
UKIP has never won a seat in the British Parliament, however, and still looks unlikely to do so. But while the U.K.’s electoral system tends to default to two main parties, third parties can play a crucial role, as evidenced by the last election, when the Conservative Party needed the Liberal Democrats to govern. However, since they entered the coalition government under the leadership of Nick Clegg, support for the Lib Dems has halved, giving the UKIP a play at the “none of the above” voter—at least in the Tory heartlands.
The threat to Cameron is palpable. But while the prime minister has tried to outflank Farage by promising a referendum on EU membership, this rightward turn seems to have done little to quell rebellions from Tory backbenchers on other issues such as gay marriage. Farage cleverly foments these divisions. His parliamentary candidates target Tory modernizers, bleeding them of support, and he has recently expanded his policy commitments to zero immigration, flat rate tax, and minimizing the government budget—except for military and prison expenditures.
Railing at wind farms from his perch in his favorite pub in the Kent countryside, Farage tries to articulate the fading voice of the English shires. Tilting at windmills may be a quixotic, outdated quest. But, when it comes to Cameron’s political future, Farage may still do considerable damage.