Has ‘Teflon Nigel’ become unstuck at last?

Published by The Mail on Sunday (21st December, 2014)

Nigel Farage is a cheerful fellow, the sort who no doubt enjoys the festive season, cracking jokes at parties with a pint of ale in hand. But even he must wonder whether he should have given his rivals so many gifts in recent days with a series of howlers that have seen the wheels start to fall off the Ukip bandwagon.

His growing list of woes ranges from a sex scandal at the top of the party and plummeting personal poll ratings to the absurdity of one of his party’s activists comparing him to Jesus.

Ex-boxer Winston McKenzie, Ukip’s Commonwealth spokesman, was suspended as chairman of his South London branch after the blasphemy.

McKenzie is the latest in a long line of Ukip figures whose crazed views have forced their dismissal, from the councillor claiming floods were God’s revenge for gay marriage to an MEP’s grotesque sexism.

But the most recent gaffe has been exacerbated by Farage’s blundering defence of racism, which has underscored concerns that behind Ukip’s sunny exterior lies a party pandering to crude prejudice that should have no place in our country.

Mr Farage promoted himself as the man to close the door on immigration. Now there is the smell of casual racism wafting from his rhetoric, which may end up damaging his cause.

This poison seeping from his party does not surprise me. I’ve seen the bigoted bedfellows Ukip keeps, away from the electorate’s gaze in Brussels.

Now voters have been given a glimpse of the corrosive attitudes beneath Mr Farage’s bonhomie. And I hope it marks the point his malign party loses its lustre, halting its seemingly unstoppable rise and the soft treatment given its leader.

Last week, The Mail on Sunday revealed that one of the Ukip leader’s proteges picked to fight a key parliamentary seat had made a string of homophobic, racist and obscene comments in a taped phone call.

One who heard the entire tape told me it was ‘disgusting stuff’. Yet instead of dumping Kerry Smith, the clearly dubious candidate for South Basildon and East Thurrock, Ukip tried to save its rising star.

Mr Farage initially refused to sack him, forcing his party to mount a ridiculous defence that Smith had been on sedatives at the time of the comments. But after a day of floundering, the candidate stood down just in time to make the evening news.

To make matters worse, Mr Farage later defended Smith as a ‘rough diamond’ and victim of ‘metropolitan snobbery’ against people outside the capital using ‘colloquial’ language.

This is pathetic stuff: the man was homophobic and racist. It is a risible hark back to sitcoms from the days when Britain was a very different nation. Times have changed; Mr Farage needs to wake up and do the same.

But it shows Mr Farage’s tricks – blaming a metropolitan elite and riding a wave of anti-Westminster feeling among the public – may no longer work.

This is, after all, a politician known as ‘Teflon Nigel’ for his ability to ensure mud never sticks. He managed to dismiss his 2010 manifesto as ‘drivel’ when it emerged Ukip wanted taxi drivers to wear uniforms and to make the Tube’s Circle line a circle again – even though he wrote the foreword.

The ambitious Mr Farage has fused a collection of crackpots into a formidable insurgency, creating jitters among opponents, jettisoning internal party critics, and twisting the national political discourse his way.

But suddenly – and thankfully, given the immense scale of challenges Britain faces – it seems japes, jocularity and posing with pints is no longer enough.

It is just six months since Ukip became the first party for more than a century to break the Tory-Labour stranglehold on national ballots with its striking victory in the European elections.

Then Mr Farage masterminded the defection of two Tory discontents, with Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless winning stunning by-elections under their new banners. But now, as the 2015 Election campaign gets under way in the New Year, things look different. And not just because schoolkids are using ‘Ukip’ as slang for people who look shifty.

An Ipsos-Mori survey has put net satisfaction with Mr Farage as Ukip leader at minus 20, its lowest-ever level. Only one-third are satisfied and more than half are dissatisfied. Our politics has become increasingly presidential – so this is particularly disastrous for a party that is little more than a one-man band.

Mr Farage needs to learn the first rule of politics – when to zip his mouth. He’s made silly comments on breastfeeding recently despite saying Ukip’s ‘blokeish’ image puts off women. Just six months ago, his score was 31 points better off at plus 11 – yet like other politicians he professes to despise, he responded by questioning the poll rather than accepting it.

It was noticeable that neither Tory defector – nor any senior MEP – backed their leader’s defence of Smith. They were right not to endorse racism.

Indeed, the two ex-Tories look uncomfortable with aspects of their new party, from its U-turn on opposing privatisation within the Health Service through to the contortions created by its fervour on immigration.

This led Mr Reckless into such a muddle he ended up advocating repatriation of immigrants during the final days of his by-election campaign.

Then Mr Farage said children of immigrants should be classed as migrants – which would include his own offspring with his German wife – and blamed a traffic jam on immigrants.

And it was telling that the usually affable Mr Carswell put the phone down on me when I asked him about Ukip’s money-grabbing alliance with a bunch of fruitcakes and neo-fascists in the European Parliament.

Party insiders put this spate of misfortune down to the growing pains of a fledgling party. But the timing of the plummeting ratings for Mr Farage following his spectacular own goals is highly unfortunate. It seems to confirm Tory claims that many former voters will return to the fold for the General Election.

Until now Mr Farage has performed a balancing act with great skill, using his ready smile to mask his party’s deficiencies and darker element, while playing the Pied Piper of pessimism, appealing to struggling voters dismayed by modern life.

Ukip’s surge has been the top political story this year. But having risen so far and so fast, has its leader been found out in the final days of 2014? Only time – and May’s Election – will tell.

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