Nigel Farage is back — and this time he’s even praising EU bureaucrats.
The former UK Independence party leader on Friday launched his new political vehicle, the Brexit party, in an attempt to capitalise on prime minister Theresa May’s failure to take Britain out of the EU on time.
“I wish [EU chief negotiator Michel] Barnier was on our side, not Mrs May,” Mr Farage said as he kicked off his campaign in Coventry. Two days after the UK’s scheduled departure date was delayed by up to six months, he accused the British parliament of a “wilful betrayal” of the 2016 referendum vote.
The veteran Eurosceptic, 55, is targeting elections to the European Parliament on May 23 for his comeback.
Mrs May has been desperate to prevent the contest from going ahead, but the elections will now take place — except in the unlikely scenario that parliament ratifies a withdrawal deal with the EU before May 22.
In Westminster and Brussels, the expectation is that the elections will benefit groups at either end of the EU debate. On one side are the Brexit party and Ukip, who both want to leave the EU without a deal.
On the other are groups campaigning for a second EU referendum: the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the newly formed Independent Group, set up by defectors from the two big parties, such as Chuka Umunna, the former Labour MP.
“There’s a pretty decent chance that the election will end up being treated as a shadow second referendum,” said Rob Ford, a politics professor at the University of Manchester. “I can’t see really how Labour or the Conservatives counter the purist messages at either end of the Brexit spectrum.”
What the two sides have in common is anger at the political system: on Friday Mr Farage even repeated the Independent Group’s slogan: “Politics is broken.”
Having already served as an MEP for 20 years, he has a chance to repeat one of his greatest victories — leading Ukip to first place in the 2014 European elections with 27 per cent.
He abandoned his old party last year in protest at its increasingly nationalistic direction under its current leader Gerard Batten. On Friday Mr Farage said Ukip was “linked to extremism, violence, criminal records and thuggery”, an implicit reference to Mr Batten’s embrace of the far-right activist Tommy Robinson.
Unlike Ukip, the Brexit party avoids policies that are not linked to its anti-EU message, such as banning Muslim veils in public places. It also has none of the internal party democracy that frustrated Mr Farage during his time as Ukip leader. It says it wants to have an agile online presence, like Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which originated as a protest group and is now the country’s biggest political party.
“This is not Ukip mark two,” said a spokesman, adding that the party was “deliberately policy light”.
Paul Oakden, a former chairman of Ukip who now supports the Brexit party, added that some things had not changed: “For example, after [the launch event], everyone is, like, right, shall we go for a pint?”
But only a handful of former Ukip MEPs are expected to be chosen to stand for the Brexit party. On Friday, the party unveiled its first few candidates — including former Tory parliamentary candidate Annunziata Rees-Mogg, sister of the Eurosceptic MP Jacob Rees-Mogg.
The question is whether Ukip and the Brexit party will cannibalise each other’s votes. In recent opinion polls, their combined forces have been well below the 15 per cent that Ukip was scoring ahead of the 2014 European Parliament elections. That leaves them lagging both Labour, which has been leading the polls for the European elections, and even the Conservatives.
As a result, “there is a distinct possibility that the UK will actually elect fewer hardline Eurosceptic MEPs . . . than it did five years ago,” Dominic Walsh, an analyst at think-tank Open Europe, wrote in a blog.
With six weeks to go before polling day, much could change as voters become acquainted with the Brexit party and the Independent Group, which is seeking to register itself as a party under the name of Change UK. Voter turnout — only 35 per cent in 2014 — will be a crucial variable.
Both Ukip and the Brexit party have serious organisational issues. The Brexit party was only formed a few months ago
A protest march last month from Sunderland to London, organised by Mr Farage, was sparsely attended. Nonetheless, the party says it has raised £950,000 — including £200,000 from one donor — in the past 10 days.
Ukip has lost many of its activists and senior figures. Of the 24 MEPs elected in that year, only three are standing for the party again. It is only contesting one-sixth of council seats in local elections on May 2.
Nonetheless, its deputy leader Mike Hookem dismissed the threat of Mr Farage’s Brexit party. “It seems like Tory-lite to me,” he said, noting the party’s light blue branding. “He’s got no footsoldiers, has he? No one’s going to leaflet.”
Mr Farage’s personal standing may, however, prove decisive. Damian Lyons Lowe, chief executive of Survation, a pollster, said that Ukip could fall below 1 per cent in national opinion polls, once voters have digested Mr Farage’s switch.
Manchester University’s Mr Ford suggested that the Brexit party could more easily appeal to traditional Conservative voters who were put off by the Ukip brand but who are angry over Brexit. On Friday Mr Farage barely mentioned immigration, the issue that defined his later years at Ukip but which may have deterred some potential voters.
The Brexit party’s stance on leaving the EU is immediately clear in a way that Change UK’s is not. “You can see Farage has been round the block in a way that Chuka Umunna hasn’t,” said Mr Ford.