Creating Boris: Nigel Farage and the 2019 election

At the end of his big BBC interview with Nigel Farage on 4 December, Andrew Neil thanked his guest, turned to the camera, and castigated Boris Johnson for evading scrutiny. “There is, of course, still one [leader interview] to be done”, said Neil, before listing a long list of “questions of trust” that he wished to put to the elusive Prime Minister. He concluded: “There is no law, no Supreme Court ruling, that can force Mr Johnson to participate in a BBC leader’s interview. But the Prime Minister of our nation will, at times, have to stand up to President Trump, President Putin, [and] President Xi of China. So, it’s surely not expecting too much that he spends half an hour standing up to me”.

It was a powerful set-piece, by a big beast of the BBC who saw his own reputation as a fearsome interviewer grow amid the collective breakdown of his employer, and quickly became canonised as one of the defining moments of a fraught election campaign. Yet, as a political punch, it didn’t leave a mark on the Prime Minister, and it almost completely overshadowed the interview with Farage, in which Neil came out fighting but which the Brexit Party leader and celebrity politician par excellence won on points.

Neil’s opening line: “Nigel Farage. This election should have been your finest hour. Instead, you’ve barely got a walk-on part. What went wrong?”

A little later: “You’re going nowhere. You’re marginalised, irrelevant in this election”.

Later still: “Just after the European elections you were puffed up enough to talk about a complete realignment of British politics. Now you might not win a single seat and you’re not even standing yourself. It was complete hubris, wasn’t it?”

Neil kept swinging, piling pressure on to Farage, whose vulnerabilities had been increasing in previous weeks. Having taken the controversial decision not to run as an MP and having stood down 317 Brexit Party candidates in key constituencies to give the Conservative Party clear runs, Farage should have been reeling. He had also reportedly fallen out with his benefactor, Arron Banks, over party strategy. And just hours before the Neil interview, Farage had been “humiliated” as four Brexit Party MEPs had left the party and advocated that voters back the Tories, amid polls that were moving in the wrong direction for Farage’s party.

Yet, the only point during the interview at which Farage looked vaguely rattled was when Neil read out some racist quotes from Brexit Party candidates, to which Farage parried, countered, and moved on. And despite what at first glance seemed like a terrible election result for the Brexit Party, their winning not a single seat, Farage emerged unbowed. Fuelled by a celebrity persona that far exceeds Westminster, Farage understands power in the age of social media in ways that most other politicians don’t, and is playing an extra-parliamentary long game where he manipulates the media and other institutions into winning the game for him.

Having forced David Cameron into calling the 2016 EU referendum, and now having re-shaped the Conservative Party (“We set out to make the Conservative Party conservative again – and it’s job done”, he said), Farage’s influence has, over the last generation, outstripped that of pretty much every elected politician in the country.

“Every party I lead shifts the centre of gravity in British politics in a very dramatic way”, he told Neil, when confronted with his own electoral failure. To an audience in Doncaster on the eve of the election he said: “If we hadn’t set The Brexit Party up, Mrs May would still be Prime Minister, Brexit would be stuck in the weeds, and a second referendum would virtually be upon us by now. We reset the political agenda…in a very dramatic way and we have dragged the Tory party kicking and screaming into a different position”. To Neil: “What we did in a sense was to create Boris Johnson”.

Not many people, surely, would be proud of such a thing, but for Farage the means justified the ends, as they had done in the past. It was also another way of cultivating his transatlantic bromance with President Trump. Whether he inadvertently overstepped the mark in creating a Tory monster with an unexpectedly large majority – one which may, under its own opportunistic leader, now pivot towards a One Nation position – remains to be seen. But Farage is not going anywhere. “I’ve spent 25 years trying to get us out of Europe. It looks like I might spend about the next 25 years trying to reform our political system. But I won’t be going away”. So said the most influential electoral loser of the modern political era.