LEADING THE WAY OUT OF THE EU

LIVE at 08:06
    • Latest Tweets:

10 December 2016

“I want my life back.” That was Nigel Farage in July. A few days earlier, he had seen his life’s work in politics come to fruition when Britain voted to leave the European Union. So he resigned as leader of the UK Independence Party and insisted he was leaving politics behind.

That was in keeping with the carefully crafted idea of Farage as the antithesis of the career politician: he was just an ordinary bloke who wanted his country back, not a cosy job  at Westminster. Which all raises the question, what is he doing here?

“Here” is Boisdale Belgravia, one of London’s more expensive restaurants and a regular Farage haunt. He’s out on the smoking terrace, fag in hand and a bottle of claret on the way. It’s 4pm on a Thursday.

Other customers include one of the richest members of the House of Lords and sundry other tycoons, several of whom pop by our table to shake hands, invite him to things, and, in one case, bum a fag.

He is utterly comfort­able, laughing easily and often: this is home ground. He is among friends.  He has an entourage, too: a couple of media handlers, an assistant and a security man.

As the wine is uncorked, he tells his PA to book flights to Washington a few days later “for meetings”, then a connection to New York for  television interviews. This is a fairly typical week: when I ask him where he actually lives, he replies, “I’m nomadic these days.”

So, how’s retirement from politics working  out, then? “Fantastic,” he says raising his glass and explaining that of course, when he said he was leaving politics, he only meant party politics. Ukip may have been the vehicle that he built and then rode to fame, but he really, really doesn’t miss leading it.

“I am having a great time. I am not having to deal with low-grade people every day, I am not responsible for what our branch secretary in Lower Slaughter said half-cut on Twitter last night – that isn’t my fault any more. I don’t have to go to eight-hour party executive meetings.

“I don’t have to spend my life dealing with  people I would never have a drink with, who I would never employ and who use me as a vehicle for their own self-promotion. There are a lot of great people in Ukip. The problem is that Ukip has become a bit like the other parties: people view it as a means to get elected.”

For all that, though, Farage hasn’t walked away from the party completely, insisting there is still a need for a “strong Ukip” to keep the Government honest on Brexit – just not a Ukip with him as leader.

Instead, he sketches out a role in which he speaks and writes, the voice and face of Ukip, while his successor as leader, Paul Nuttall, tries to manage a famously chaotic organisation and focus its efforts on challenging Labour in northern working-class areas. “We won the war, we have to win the peace.  I will help with that in other ways,” Farage  says contentedly.

That sounds as though you want to have your cake and eat it: you get to do the fun stuff, making speeches and going on television, while some other poor sod deals with the subordinate steering committee on local council candidate selection and all the other internal tedium. “Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, I do. Haven’t I earned it? I’ve done the hard yards.”

Farage gets accused of lots of things, but idleness isn’t one of them. Building Ukip’s profile (and his own) meant years on the road, giving speech after speech and taking every media opportunity going. Enough is enough, he says. “I think 25 years is not a bad run, ruining your family life and virtually bankrupting yourself.”

Money is important to Farage. A former City trader who counts numerous seriously wealthy people as friends and admirers, he can sound like a man who has a rather skewed idea of what’s normal when it comes to wealth.

 “Half my colleagues, my old contemporaries in the City, are now worth real money,” he notes.

What’s “real money”? ‘Well, I had lunch with a friend on Sunday, he’s worth 60. Some of my very clever friends are worth 300 or 400,’ he says, meaning millions of pounds.

“I have no regrets about being poor.”  You’re poor? With an MEP’s salary of £85,000 plus expenses and a wife on the payroll, you’re poor? What would those northern Labour voters think of that? “Yeah, I am,” he says, sounding surprisingly defensive. Then there’s a big laugh that feels a little forced and he retreats.

“Look, I’m 52, I have no regrets. I’m not poor, but I don’t drive smart cars, I don’t go on fancy holidays. All my money has gone on my kids’ education.” (He has two grown-up sons from a first marriage, two girls with his current wife.)

So why not walk away completely and make some “real money”? He says he’s not short of lucrative offers from the City. He’d like to watch more cricket and do more fishing.  That question again: why are you still here?

“Well, the American opportunity presented itself.” By that he means his richest friend, Donald Trump. Their alliance, he insists, came about more by accident than by design.

Free of the Ukip leadership, he took a “holiday” to the Republican Party convention in Cleveland, Ohio, saw Trump nominated and saw “an opportunity to help an outsider who was doing a lot of the things we did in Brexit”.

He later shared a platform with Trump at a rally in Mississippi and acted as an unofficial spokesman in the “spin room” after the presidential debates. A measure of how toxic a figure Trump is in Britain, Farage admits that backing him caused “my biggest ever rift with Ukip”.

Many people in a party that almost exists to oppose political correctness considered Trump’s rhetoric beyond the pale.  Is Farage comfortable with everything his friend has said?

“No. There were several things he said on the campaign trail I didn’t like. Dealing with protesters, the total ban on Muslims, the women thing… of course I don’t agree with that.

“I don’t agree with everything he says,  but do I think he represents the right things  for America and the West? Yes, and I never doubted that.”

Farage, meanwhile, takes obvious pride in the approval of the next American president. “People in business tend to have an instinctive reaction to people. For whatever reason, Trump likes my story, likes what I’ve done. He trusts me.”

He adds that it helps that he stood by Trump at the nadir of his campaign, a debate in  St Louis, Missouri, shortly after the candidate’s “grab them by the pussy” comments surfaced. “St Louis was grim. There were thousands of journalists there, and only three of us prepared to defend him.”

Trump thanked Farage fully at his tower-home in New York last month, and gave the world the image that encapsulates the most turbulent year in recent political history.

That photograph, the one of Trump and Farage grinning in front of Trump’s golden doors, is the image of 2016, the two well-fed populists who turned Western democracy upside down.

Despite the smiles, it’s not a picture of simple happiness. They may be friends but they’re not equals. Trump now gets to be the American president, leader of the free world; Farage gets to sit in expensive wine bars answering questions about how he spends his days.

The disparity clearly bothers Farage. To hear him tell it, that meeting wasn’t a PR stunt to wind up the British Government (although he clearly delights in that prospect), it was an almost Damascene event, the moment Nigel Farage decided he wanted to be a serious politician, perhaps even a statesman.

“What came from that meeting was a very strong feeling in my head that I’d spent most of my career trying to knock things down. I’ve been quite good at it, too. But I thought after that meeting, here was a chance to build something, here was a chance to play a constructive role.”

What do you want to build? The answer spills out of him like an essay: he’s been thinking about this.

“A proper US-UK relationship. Firstly on trade, because it would be good for business, but it would massively strengthen our hand in negotiations with the EU, because a UK-US free-trade deal puts the wind up the German car industry.

“Secondly, on defence and Nato. I think Nato needs to redefine itself. There has been no substantial thought about what Nato is for since the Berlin Wall came down. Trump is right about members not paying their way.

“There is also a very big threat to Nato, and it is not Donald Trump, it is Jean-Claude Juncker, who is determined to use the Trump victory to say let’s get rid of the Americans and form our own army.

“That is very dangerous, and Britain has a huge role to play as the defence bridge between Europe and America. Trump is in  a position to say,’OK, let’s redefine what Nato is: everyone pays their way, and if you seek to undermine us with a European army, we’re out of here.’

“The third thing where we can work with Trump is in the Middle East, where we have to have a coherent approach to [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] and everything else. I’m not suggesting that I can do everything but I do think that I’m quite good at negotiating, I’m quite good at bringing  people together.”

That’s right, Nigel Farage wants to bring peace to the Middle East.  You’re kidding, right? “I’m good at bringing people together.”  Really? “When it comes to business I am.”

Realistically, he accepts there isn’t a cat’s chance in hell that Theresa May is going to grant his wish and give him some sort of job, especially not the ambassadorship Trump suggested in an incendiary tweet.

Even before what they saw as the Trump stunt, May’s team loathed Farage, and the feeling is mutual.

Our conversation is peppered with derogatory references to the PM (“no vision, no energy”) and her allies: their dishonesty and incompetence would make it all  but impossible for him ever to rejoin the Conservatives, he says.

Nor does he think it would be viable for Trump to hire a Brit to work for the US government, and he says that while he’s happy to visit, he has no desire to live in America. Which means he’s likely to become a talking head, sometimes a roving spokesman-without-portfolio for Ukip, but mostly chairman and chief executive of Nigel Farage plc.

That obviously falls short of “building something”, but he says he’s happy with it. “I do feel that as a commentator I have something to give. Maybe through writing and commentating I can continue to influence public opinion.”

What about Parliament? His successor is lobbying hard for Ukip to get seats in the House of Lords to reflect the four million votes it got at the last election, not to mention the referendum result. Some of Farage’s friends say this is what he dreams  of, a seat in the Lords as the ultimate show  of respect from a political establishment that long held him in contempt.

“Ukip should get peerages, not me. That would be their way to park me off,” he says. You could always join and trash the place. It worked in the European Parliament, after all. More laughter.

“That is quite appealing, but  I have to keep my options open for the general election. It rules out being a serious player at the general election, which I might need to be if Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit. I can’t close that off. It means too much to me.”

Although he won’t quite say it explicitly, Farage is anticipating a scenario in which May delivers a disappointing or diluted Brexit deal, and Ukip surfs a tide of public anger to take enough Commons seats to rival or even replace the Conservatives.  Basically, he thinks that he and Ukip could end up in government, doesn’t he?

“I haven’t really thought about it,” he says with mock sincerity. Do you want to be prime minister? “No.” You’re lying. Every politician who says no to that question is lying. “I don’t lie.”

“You’ve never thought, ‘I could do the job better than any of them’?”

“Oh, well, yes, of course I’ve thought that… All the time,” he says, dissolving into laughter that quickly gives way to a rare, earnest frown.

“Look, I hope, genuinely, that Brexit means Brexit and the job is done and there is no need for me. I really hope that’s it. But with every week that goes by, I think it might not be, so I’ll have to stick at it.”

Stirring stuff, and intended to be his parting thought. Farage has another appointment in another posh pub: another of his rich friends has bought a London boozer “for a laugh”, and Farage is speaking at the opening. Besides, the claret is gone, and I worry my expense account won’t stretch to another bottle.

Last question, then. It’s all cobblers, isn’t it? The whole argument about having to stick around to see Brexit through, the do-my-duty-to-the-country schtick – isn’t it just another line from just another politician looking to justify his job?

If you did walk away to make “real money” and watch the cricket and have time on your hands, you’d hate it. You’d be bored. You don’t want your life back. This is your life, isn’t it?

There’s a pause and a flat stare as he draws  on his last fag. I start to wonder whether I’ve offended the most offensive man in British politics. Then another laugh, one that certainly seems genuine.

“Probably, probably,” he says, nodding. He’s still smiling but there’s something resigned, almost plaintive about his last words: “I need to do exciting things.’”