At the start of the year, the Brexit party didn’t exist. When it roared to success a few months later in the European parliamentary elections, much was made of how unlike a normal party it was. Nigel Farage was fond of telling audiences that his MEPs included Tories and former members of the Revolutionary Communist party. What else could unite them, he would ask, but the need to leave the European Union? Yet that common cause is now proving to be the party’s undoing in the wake of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
While Theresa May’s agreement was panned almost instantly, reaction to Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal has been mostly positive. Tory Brexiteers queued up on the airwaves and in studios to condemn what amounted to ‘vassalage’ under May. This time, Tories – even hard-to-please members of the ERG – have been almost universally supportive. Broadly speaking, Brexit party voters agree: a Survation poll shows that more than two-thirds of the party’s supporters approve of the deal.
But not Nigel Farage. The Brexit party leader’s reaction to Johnson’s deal has been remarkable and self-contradictory. By turns, he has invoked the Benn Act and the supremacy of European law in attempts to justify his continued opposition to the government’s line. This is casting about for a cause and appears as desperate as it is. Without a place in Parliament, his party is a prisoner of events.
Farage knows all too clearly that the Brexit party risks irrelevance unless it can outflank the Tories in some way. As a result, he is forced into increasingly tortured and hard-to-maintain positions. Many of its MEPs and leading lights distrust Johnson, but they are also willing to give the PM the benefit of the doubt, if it means delivering Brexit. Lance Forman, Lucy Harris and others appear cautiously in favour of Parliament approving Johnson’s deal. Forman spoke for others in the Brexit party when he wrote:
‘My fear if we don’t take the deal, is an election may not be called for a long time & the EU can choose the length of extension – maybe five years. There’s no guarantee who wins the election. People may get more fed up and decide to remain. The deal banks a small win to build on.’
Meanwhile, only a few Brexit party MEPs have echoed Farage’s bizarre double talk.
Farage’s desire to deliver Brexit even if it came at the price of destroying the Conservative party might have served for most of the party’s candidates in the European elections, but supplanting the Conservative government under Johnson – who seems committed to Brexit – is a different prospect. Even entering Parliament appears unlikely without a pact with the Tories; and Farage’s continued opposition to any form of deal will not work now Johnson has secured one.
The Brexit party achieved real success weeks after its launch. It would be strangely appropriate if it disappeared just as suddenly, as soon as the thing it had claimed to want came about, delivered by someone else.
Perhaps this fleeting appearance is no great surprise. The Brexit party’s big tent ideology brought together people who disagree on many fronts, except on their shared desire to leave the European Union.
Though Farage liked to make this an asset – that former communists and former conservatives could unite for the sake of democracy – it made his organisation look like a grab-bag rather than a disciplined machine.
Despite the fanfare with which Farage’s MEPs arrived in Brussels, the Brexit party in the European parliament has also been something of a let down, a sideshow while the main event takes place back in Westminster. His motley crew of MEPs is good at stunts – like those it performed at the session’s opening – and bizarre intemperate speeches – such as those given by Ann Widdecombe in the chamber – but the novelty of this has quickly worn thin. Even the party’s fairly innovative YouTube channel has failed to attract much in the way of viewers.
Since he took office, Boris Johnson’s clear commitment to leaving at the end of the month, come hell or high water, do or die, has only worsened matters for Farage and the Brexit party. Until last week, the party was reliant upon any deal that the prime minister secured being as roundly condemned as May’s was earlier this year. This hasn’t happened.
Now even committed leavers – including former Ukip members of parliament like Douglas Carswell – say they would back Johnson’s deal. Such people are not interested in getting into Westminster, or exercising power to influence domestic politics, Brexit or no Brexit. Unbound from the necessity of justifying Farage’s contortions, Carswell and others prioritise a pragmatic attempt to do what they promised: to leave the European Union as quickly and expeditiously as possible.
Meanwhile, the Brexit party and Nigel Farage still seem intent on refusing to grasp reality. The closer the country has come to Brexit, the more the Brexit party has wilted.