Let’s say the pollsters have got it wrong. After all, their record is hardly perfect. So let’s say they’ve called it wrong and the Tories are not down to 7%, which would be the worst electoral performance in their history; that Labour are not on a meagre 13%, trailing six points behind the Lib Dems and a single point ahead of the Green party. Let’s say those numbers, from YouGov’s last poll for the Times ahead of tomorrow’s European elections, prove to be off once the votes are counted. Even if that happens, there’s one finding that is unlikely to be upended. If it were, the pollsters would have to be more wrong than they have ever been, and to an outlandishly large degree. That finding, shared by all the polling organisations, is the imminent victory of Nigel Farage and his Brexit party.
YouGov has Farage ahead of his closest rivals, the Lib Dems, by a staggering 18 points. Even if that hugely overestimates his support, he’s still in front. Pollsters have a margin of error, but even if you tripled it, Farage is still the likely winner of this contest.
On one level, that’s no surprise. Farage’s party in 2014 – Ukip – won the last European elections too. Two years later, leave won 52% in a referendum and Farage has, rather brilliantly, made his Brexit party the unambiguous vehicle of leave. If most leavers consolidate behind Farage, and especially while the remain vote is fragmented six different ways, that immediately puts him in pole position.
And yet, even if it’s not surprising, the success of Nigel Farage should be shocking. For what it suggests is that this man – who tried and failed to be elected to Westminster seven times – has a Teflon coating unmatched by any other figure in UK politics. Consider what has bounced off him in the past fortnight alone.
Channel 4 News alleged that the self-proclaimed scourge of the elite was in fact a “kept man”, afforded a life of personal luxury by the Brexit funder, Arron Banks. The programme presented evidence of invoices, emails and documents said to show Farage benefiting from a £13,000-a-month, furnished home in Chelsea and a Land Rover Discovery, complete with driver, as well as receiving cash to help build his brand in the US. According to Channel 4 News, the bill paid by Banks for the promotion and pampering of Farage in the year following the referendum was about £450,000.
And yet there he was on Tuesday night, on stage in London for a Brexit party rally, railing against the establishment, offering himself as the champion of the little guy. In the same speech, he denounced “the career politicians”, even though, just a moment earlier, he had boasted of his 20 years as a (well-rewarded) member of the European parliament. He refused to recognise any contradiction and so his adoring, cheering audience saw no contradiction either.
Revelations that would ruin other politicians make no dent in Farage. Most party leaders would be embarrassed to admit that the Electoral Commission had that morning made a raid on their offices looking for evidence of campaign finance violations. But Farage revelled in it, slamming the commission as remainers and turning his fire on his latest accuser, the former prime minister Gordon Brown, who had suggested on Monday that the Brexit party could be accepting foreign and untraceable donations via the online payments service PayPal. (Farage, Brown said, was not a man of the people, but “the man of the PayPal, because that is where the money is coming from”.) All these attacks, Farage told the London crowd, just show how rattled the establishment are, how much they want to deny you, the people, the Brexit you voted for.
This is his modus operandi – borrowed, it has to be said, straight from Donald Trump. If you pose as an outsider, then every scandalous revelation can be presented as a desperate attack by the elite, bent on stifling your voice – and, through you, the voice of the people.
And so nothing sticks. Less than a fortnight ago, the Sun ran a front-page story that Farage had “legged it after his chauffeur-driven 4×4 crashed head-on with a Jag carrying a toddler”. This was not some ancient episode rehashed. The crash had happened earlier this month, involving Farage and a car carrying a 13-month-old boy. The child’s father told the paper that Farage walked off and “didn’t even bother to see if we were OK”. Farage said that he did check no one was hurt – and the story came and went.
Meanwhile, imagine Farage’s rhetorical fury if, say, Labour had adopted as a candidate someone who was a member of a party that was on record supporting the IRA’s campaign of violence, and who refused to disavow that stance, even when confronted by the father of a child murdered by an IRA bomb. And yet that’s an accurate description of Claire Fox, number one on the Brexit party list for northwest England.
Farage shrugs that off, just as he shrugged off Andrew Marr reminding him of his well-documented record of hostility to the very idea of the National Health Service and his preference for a system of private insurance; his opposition to immigrants with HIV being treated by the NHS; his description of Britain’s ban on handguns as “ludicrous”; and his gushing admiration for Vladimir Putin. (Farage is a big fan of Donald Trump too, who polls show is disliked by two-thirds of Britons. But that doesn’t hurt him either.)
Pick your example. It could be the testimony of the Ukip founder Alan Sked, who once recalled for the Guardian an argument he and Farage had in 1997 about who should be standing for their new party. Farage, said Sked, “wanted ex-National Front candidates to run, and I said, ‘I’m not sure about that,’ and he said, ‘There’s no need to worry about the nigger vote. The nig-nogs will never vote for us.’” Farage denies having said this.
If that feels too long ago, how about the more current revelation that one George Cottrell, who served jail time in the US after being caught offering money laundering services to undercover federal agents, is back in a fundraising role for the Brexit party? Before pleading guilty to a money laundering charge, Cottrell was charged with 21 counts including wire fraud, blackmail and extortion. When challenged on this by the Guardian, the Brexit party said Cottrell had “no official position with the party and is not paid by the party” but pointedly did not deny his unpaid involvement.
Any one of these stories would have dogged a regular politician for a regular party. But Farage is judged by a different standard, including by the media, too often seen as a jolly carnival turn rather than as a party leader on the verge of winning a UK-wide election. Meanwhile his supporters, like Trump’s base, see every negative report as a dishonest, fake news smear, and therefore as perverse confirmation of his integrity: to them, such attacks prove that the “elite” need to discredit Farage because he poses a threat to the established order.
It’s an extraordinary trick to pull off, requiring a defining trait that Farage shares with Trump and the rest of the surging global band of populist nationalists: utter shamelessness. He cannot be embarrassed; he will gleefully ride out every contradiction, brazen out every scandal without so much a blush. And now, it seems, British voters are about to learn what Americans and others have learned already: that shamelessness works.