LONG READ: Inside the meteoric rise of the Brexit Party
Nigel Farage is once again throwing the British political system into turmoil. But where did the Brexit Party come from and where is it headed?
In December 2018, Nigel Farage pulled the curtain down on a major era for Ukip as he dramatically quit the party he once led after more than 20 years as a member. He had become disillusioned with its transformation into an anti-Islam outfit that courted controversial figures such as Tommy Robinson and alt-right YouTuber Carl Benjamin. After decades in politics, the man who led Ukip to win 4 million votes at the 2015 general election and secured the vote for Brexit suddenly found himself politically homeless. So he set about building himself a new home.
Five months later and the Brexit Party is on course to claim a stunning victory at the upcoming European Parliament elections. Voter anger at Parliament's failure to deliver Brexit by the original deadline of 29 March has propelled Farage back to the forefront of UK politics and he is enjoying every minute.
The plans for a new party began to ferment in January 2019, when Farage joined the Leave Means Leave campaign - founded by property tycoon Richard Tice and business consultant John Longworth. Farage signed up as a co-chair and began fulminating at rallies about the so-called “betrayal” over Brexit. The appearances were used to gauge what appetite there was for a new party and how it could function. Frustration in the country was on the up after Theresa May failed to get her Brexit deal through the Commons, and the Brexit Party was founded just days after MPs rejected her blueprint by a whopping 230 votes.
The name was an obvious choice for a movement that hoped to do exactly what it said on the tin. However there has since been some regret that its original leader, Catherine Blaiklock, registered it with ‘The’ in the title. If it had just been ‘Brexit Party’ it would have topped the European Elections ballot paper. “It was done by a woman with two years' experience in politics,” one insider laments. The following month, Blaiklock was out after past anti-Islam social media posts were uncovered by BuzzFeed, and Farage became leader.
Farage was the obvious choice to head the movement with his past profile at the top of the pro-Brexit movement in the UK. Senior Brexit Party figures were quietly pleased when pro-Remain party Change UK was set up in February by MPs with no experience of leading a major national campaign without a party machine behind them. Indeed, the party formed of defecting Labour and Tory MPs has struggled to get off the ground, to the glee of its critics. “With Change UK you have a bunch of chiefs and no Indians, and that is why they have had a complete shocker,” a Brexit Party source said.
BREAK WITH THE PAST
Some former Ukip figures like Nathan Gill and Stephen Woolfe were quick to join the Brexit Party, but others held back to see where it was headed before making the move. Farage too has been careful about bringing ex-Ukip members on board if they do not fit the new brand. “One of the reasons you haven’t seen mass defections as yet is they are very careful on vetting everybody who wants to defect to them,” one former Ukip MEP said. A number of former Ukip councillors and at least one Welsh Assembly member have been blocked from joining.
Some of the ex-Ukip MEPs meanwhile have been allowed into the party but have had their bids to re-fight for their seats rejected. “They have deliberately avoided selecting anybody who is ex-Ukip who has done anything that is massively controversial or who has baggage which could potentially explode during the campaign,” the same source explained.
Despite a moderate trickle of scandals, the party is desperate not to get blown off course and is eager to break with the past. One former Ukip MEP who had their bid for candidacy knocked back said: “I think the strategy is clearly not to be Ukip 2.0. There are people involved in this who would never have been involved with our previous efforts. And that’s great. The broader the tent the more scope you have for appealing to a new electorate.”
PARTY OF BUSINESS
The change in brand feeds into the overall plan to run the organisation more as a business than a political party. Decisions come from the top with no branch structure or members to keep happy. Advisers can offer their two cents but the number of people who make the calls is kept small.
Chairman Richard Tice, who formerly chaired the controversial Leave.EU campaign during the EU referendum, ran a FTSE 350 multinational which grew to hold assets worth more than £1bn. Farage also has a business background as a former commodities trader. Consultant John Longworth, also a central figure, was chair of the British Chambers of Commerce. The group like to think of the Brexit Party more as a tech start up - an insurgent and fast-moving business that likes getting things done - than a political party. The voters are thought of as consumers with needs that can be met by business choices - with quick decisions required to shift the supply to keep up with demand.
Naturally the approach comes with its downsides. Registered supporters might begin to wonder what the £25 joining fee was for, while the leadership wields vast and unaccountable power. One source says: “The question is whether the loss of democracy is a price worth paying. At the moment the answer is clearly a yes.” Another says: “The level of professional expertise involved has astonished me and impressed me. It’s a different ball game to the kind of stuff we were doing before.”
THE WAR CHEST
In monetary terms the business approach is certainly paying off. The party has amassed more than £3m so far - mostly from the £25 supporters' fee, as well as small donations that range from between £5 to the low thousands. “Every time we look we don’t seem to have any less cash,” one insider said. “It’s coming in at the rate of £200 a minute.” Former Tory donor Jeremy Hosking was unmasked last week as having delivered a £200,000 donation, while PoliticsHome understands that at least one other donor has handed the party a six-figure sum. Former Ukip donor Arron Banks will not be giving the party any cash - at least for the moment. Farage has indicated that the party should not be associated with Banks while he fights allegations of funding rule breaches during the EU referendum.
A fair amount of the funding has been spent hiring halls around the country for huge Donald Trump-style rallies that Farage and other key figures speak at, as well as paying for the relevant security and the audio-visuals to make media content out of the events. Those who turn up to the rallies pay £2.50 a pop - which eases the burden on party coffers - plus they provide all their invaluable personal details for future canvassing.
Hundreds of pounds each day are spent on the crucial social media war - although with Labour and the Tories doing hardly any online advertising for the European Parliament elections there is little to counter. Money also goes on more traditional advertising, such as billboards and campaign literature, while more than half a million pounds was spent on the leaflets the Government pays to send out to each household.
RISE OF THE BREXIT PARTY
The spending is paying off. According to Farage more than 100,000 people have signed up as supporters so far. The party shot to the top of the European Parliament election polls just weeks after launch, and this weekend beat the Conservatives in a Westminster voting intention poll, indicating it could pick up some 50 seats in the Commons.
Punters are flocking to campaign rallies each day - some early in the mornings on weekdays - and are giving Farage a celebrity welcome wherever he goes. The movement has attracted high-profile figures to its ranks such as Conservative minister Anne Widdicombe and won media coverage for the surprise unveiling of journalist Annunziata Rees-Mogg - the sister of Tory MP Jacob - as an MEP candidate. Rumour has it that swathes of the Tory membership will be voting for it and no doubt a good chunk of the Conservative parliamentary party too.
The sudden rise has overshadowed the fact that the party is struggling to get campaigners willing to knock on doors - an issue it will have to rectify when all knives are out during a general election campaign.
The Brexit Party looks set to dominate at the European Parliament elections on 23 May - but the big question will be what comes next. Farage has promised to develop a full policy plan after polling day - although he has vowed not to use the word ‘manifesto’, which he says is synonymous with “lie” and probably sounds outdated to the average punter.
He has said the party will adopt a direct democracy system for developing policy, with insiders pointing to the process used by the Italian Five Star Movement (a populist party Farage has long admired) as well as other insurgent political groups. The M5S went into coalition with the far-right Lega party last May when 94% of its members backed the move in a vote online. Adopting a direct democracy system would be a radical move in the UK, but would cede much of the power retained by the leadership through the business model of the party. However, critics note that in the existing examples around the world, memberships of direct democracy parties rarely if ever vote against the will of the high command.
One thing is for sure: If the deadlock over the EU continues at Westminster, the Brexit Party will continue to prosper. The UK electoral system is unfriendly to new parties, but this one has broken the 20% support mark in opinion polls and continues to grow. Holding the balance of power in the event of a snap election would be a dream for Farage and an unthinkable prospect a matter of months ago. “If nothing changes and we have a general election in the near future I think we will make a breakthrough,” one source says. “People are absolutely ready. The moment they fire that starting pistol we will be at it like nobody’s business, and I really think we will return MPs.”