The UK Independence Party is a serious threat to the Conservativesby James Macintyre / June 28, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
Nigel Farage, “an exceptional anecdotalist and very good company,” has made UKIP a political force
For Peter Kellner’s YouGov charts and analysis, click here
The man who is bankrolling the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) lives and works at a penthouse in the heart of Mayfair, next to the famous Italian restaurant Cipriani. Etched into the building are the words “Too many laws, too few examples.” Inside, the lift ascends to a top floor sitting room with French windows opening onto a balcony overlooking central London. A maid prepares coffee with chocolate Bourbon biscuits. Then, up some steps, in sea-blue shirtsleeves, comes the unassuming figure of Stuart Wheeler, the 76-year-old multi-millionaire who a decade ago gave generously to the Conservatives and is now donating funds to UKIP.
Led by the telegenic Nigel Farage, UKIP is a now a serious political party. This year, it has doubled its support to 8 per cent, according to YouGov figures, on the back of dislike of Europe and immigration. In April, three polls showed UKIP as Britain’s “third party,” above the Lib Dems and peaking at 11 per cent. In the May local elections, UKIP averaged 13 per cent of the vote in the seats it contested. The party appears to have clinched a place as the acceptable face of nationalism, with its rival on the right, the BNP, seen by many as racist (a charge the BNP denies).
Commentators expect UKIP to perform very well at the European elections in June 2014. Farage claims that UKIP will replace the Lib Dems as Britain’s third party—a goal that is not impossible as the Lib Dems face potential devastation at the next general election, the penalty for their coalition with the Tories. But the Conservative party, divided over Europe, has most to fear. Polls regularly show a small majority of voters in favour of withdrawal from the EU. Yet Cameron is known not to want a referendum because of the priority of the Eurozone crisis, and the likelihood that a referendum would further split the Tory party.
There are two men who count in UKIP: Farage, leader from 2006-2009 and again since 2010, and Stuart Wheeler, generous donor since 2009. They are very different characters, but both show that UKIP can no longer be dismissed in British politics.
Farage acknowledges privately that his job is made easier with the Tories in power, as the compromises of office inevitably let down some Eurosceptic Conservative voters (Peter Kellner, p35). Wheeler’s sights are firmly set on his former Conservative allies. In his gentlemanly and soft-spoken way, Wheeler attacks the “Europhile” David Cameron. Wheeler gave UKIP “about £90,000” last year. In a move that will worry senior Conservatives, he is actively wooing disillusioned Eurosceptic Tory MPs to defect to UKIP.
“I have written to five different Eurosceptic Conservative MPs inviting each of them to have lunch with me, alone, without knowing who the others were,” he says. “All five accepted.” These lunches were “all very friendly. Whether anything will come of it is another matter. I mean I didn’t actually invite them necessarily to come over [to UKIP] but… It’s a hell of a thing of course for an MP to come over because, unlike an MEP who can more or less be guaranteed a seat in the European parliament as UKIP rather than Conservatives, your chance of being elected to the Commons as UKIP is very remote, because of the first-past-the-post system.”
However, some Tory MPs face problems with changes to the boundaries of their constituencies. These include Nadine Dorries, the outspoken backbencher who has described Cameron and George Osborne as “arrogant posh boys.” Wheeler will “neither confirm nor deny” any names of his lunch guests, but does agree that those with boundary problems are potential targets. “That’s true, and those who are near retirement and don’t want to be reselected or anything—they might be possibles, yes.”
“We’d be delighted for anyone to come over but I’m not going into who I have seen and haven’t seen,” he adds. Asked about Dorries he does say: “Well I suppose she has somewhat, I don’t know, well, from what I read, she may have rather burnt her boat with the Conservative party.”
Wheeler, whose background is Eton, Oxford and the Welsh Guards, is credited with inventing “spread betting” on financial markets (allowing people to place wagers on movements in asset prices without actually owning them). He made £90m, as widely reported, in 2000 after floating IG Index, the company he founded in 1974, on the stock market. He sold his final holdings in 2003, and says that “my income is way below my outgoings.” But he is a huge asset for any party, especially in a system which has no caps on individual donations or state funding. In the run-up to the 2001 general election, Wheeler gave £5m to the Conservative party under William Hague’s leadership, becoming the party’s biggest ever donor. But by 2009, he was disillusioned with Cameron’s leadership and announced he would be voting UKIP in the European elections. Wanting to back a party that seeks withdrawal from the EU, Wheeler donated £100,000 to UKIP that year, prompting his expulsion from the Tory party. The incident has left bitterness, with Wheeler claiming that Eric Pickles, then party chairman, “lied” about the way in which he was expelled. Pickles said he called Wheeler; Wheeler says he was sent an email.
Wheeler does not give money only to political causes. “The thing I hate most in life is torture, so 90 per cent of what I give to charities as opposed to political parties does go to the human rights organisations [such as Amnesty International] and it’s torture rather than any other human right that I’m concerned about.” He got involved in Tory politics under the leadership of Hague, who fought the 2001 general election with the slogan “24 hours to save the pound.” “I really didn’t get much interested in politics at all until I was invited to dinner with William Hague at White’s.” Now, however, he is scathing about Hague, Osborne and Cameron, primarily but not only over Europe. “I just think [the Tories] got it very very wrong, and they were not doing anything to protect our interests in the EU, for all they said they were going to. I just thought they were being useless about it and it was much better to support UKIP.”
Cameron is too pro-European for Wheeler. “I’m not being sarcastic when I say I don’t know why he is so Europhile. I literally don’t know.” Does he really think Cameron is “Europhile”? “I do really. Before the last election, people were saying ‘I know that Cameron’s not making very Eurosceptic noises but once he’s in power you’ll see’—well we haven’t seen, absolutely not.”
I put it to Wheeler that Cameron could be said to be one of the most Eurosceptic of Tory leaders, the only one to withdraw from the European People’s Party, the mainstream centre-right group. “Well, he took years to fulfil his promise to do so.” In any case, for Wheeler, the goal is more fundamental: exit and the reclaiming of sovereignty. “I strongly feel we should be out of Europe. But while we’re in it Cameron has made no effort on several important matters, most importantly the regulation of the City of London which is our biggest single earner and produces tax money.”
On the wider domestic agenda, does Wheeler agree with Norman Tebbit and David Davis who have written in Prospect and elsewhere of the Cabinet’s “cronyish” style? “From what I can make out, that does seem to be the case. But also Cameron’s judgement is fantastically bad. How could he have appointed [Andy] Coulson [the former News of the World editor who became Cameron’s head of communications]? And then—what’s he called—Jeremy Hunt [the culture secretary]? Hunt may or may not have done some things he shouldn’t have done, but he had made his [pro-Murdoch] position clear before he took that post, and so it was absolutely obvious that he shouldn’t have been appointed to it. It is obvious Cameron made a gigantic blunder.”
His wider problem with the government is “its pure incompetence. I mean this business—shaming as a British citizen—that people should have to wait three or four hours at British airports to get in; completely foreseeable, very nasty for the people and very bad for our reputation. How on earth did it happen?”
On the coalition, Wheeler echoes the view expressed by Tories on the right: that the Liberal Democrats are too influential. The Lib Dems, he says, “would be destroyed if there was an election. So, I think either he is just frightened when he shouldn’t be, or it’s a convenient excuse for doing what he wants anyway.”
Wheeler would consider giving money to the Tories again only “if they gave us a definite in or out [referendum]. But they would have to be much more gutsy on other things. They really are lacking in determination and a vision of where they want to go.” I ask whether he has had any approaches to return to his former party. “No, they just say, ‘Oh Stuart, we’ve got to get you back in the fold one of these days.’ But not so much recently because of things I’ve said.”
Wheeler says he is committed to UKIP, and he expects his party to do better than ever. “I mean it’s fantastic… Outside London we got 13.8 per cent where we stood. One interesting point is that the polls put us at 8 or 9 per cent on that morning, and so there may be something like not wanting to admit that you’re voting UKIP.” He adds that some polls still do not include UKIP as a separate option, offering only the three main parties and “others.” Wheeler believes that the polls “underestimate our support.”
UKIP’s short-term strategy is to force the government into holding a referendum on EU membership. “I’m sure Cameron would absolutely hate it—but the stronger rumour is that Labour is going to back it,” Wheeler says. It is true that Ed Miliband is being lobbied by Ed Balls and others to outflank the Tories and back a referendum. Miliband has yet to make up his mind, but his new head of policy, Jon Cruddas, also backs an in-or-out vote. “It would be a vote-winner I think,” Wheeler says, “because irrespective of which way you vote, most people do want a referendum on it, so I think if Labour does it, the Conservatives may be forced to.” However, on 6th June the Labour leader indicated he was minded not to call for a referendum soon.
The debate about whether to back a referendum cuts across political divides. David Owen, the former leader of the Social Democratic Party (which in 1988 merged with the Liberal Party to form the Liberal Democrats), has proposed a two-question poll, on whether or not to remain in an integrating EU with a view to eventually joining the euro, and whether instead voters would prefer to be “part of the single market in a wider European community.”
Wheeler agrees that the eurozone turmoil would help the “No” cause. But he points out that in the UK’s last Europe referendum in 1975, “the polls showed 6-4 for coming out and the result was 2-1 for staying in.” Though Europe is his great cause, Wheeler emphasises that UKIP projects a wider agenda. “We’re very strong on immigration—we’ll have people who want to work if we need them but not otherwise. The country’s full for the moment. We’d cap it for five years, and so I think we’re much better than the Conservatives on that. Grammar schools we are in favour of. Low taxes we are in favour of. We are sceptical about global warming, and I think that the amount of money that is being spent on that is absolutely astronomical, for a country that can’t afford it.”
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This wider platform is emphasised by Nigel Farage, UKIP’s leader. Farage, who once built his own brokerage firm, believes small businesses and manufacturing are the keys to rebuilding the economy. He dismisses Osborne as having “never had a job” and says the country is being run “by a bunch of college kids.”
I meet Farage at “Europe House,” the headquarters of the EU Commission in London, which also happens to be the site of the old Tory HQ in Smith Square where Margaret Thatcher waved triumphantly from the windows on election nights. Here, Farage and his two press officers have their London base along with other MEPs from rival parties. Before long, we retire to the local pub, the Marquis of Granby, frequented by Tories.
A regular on Question Time, Farage is well known as a campaigner on Europe. Like other outsiders in politics, such as George Galloway and Tommy Sheridan, he has a perma-tan (which is real, from travelling around Europe) and an easy way with ordinary people. But Farage is also an exceptional anecdotalist and very good company, full of insights and gossip about senior politicians. As he sips a pint of real ale (“like a good Burgundy, you never know how it will taste”) and smokes Benson & Hedges cigarettes outside the pub, Farage receives messages from his family about the garden benefiting from the early summer rain. He is a fishing enthusiast and reads widely in military history and politics. When I ask whether he favours proportional representation he says that, having read Roy Jenkins’s report into “AV plus,” that is the system he prefers.
A one-time Tory, Farage was a founding member of UKIP when it was first created in 1993. In 1999, he was elected to the European parliament as MEP for the southeast of England, a position he retains. UKIP was still seen by many as a joke, however, never more so than in 2004 when the Yorkshire and the Humber UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom declared memorably: “I want to deal with women’s issues, because I just don’t think they clean behind the fridge enough.” That same year, Farage recruited the TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, who was the party’s MEP for the east Midlands. This looked like a masterstroke, but a year later Kilroy, who sought the leadership, resigned, claiming the party was a “joke” and “sitting on its backsides in Brussels.” The then UKIP leader Roger Knapman said he would “break open the champagne,” adding, “It was nice knowing him, now ‘goodbye’.”
It was not until 2006 that Farage took on what proved to be a turbulent leadership, with the aim of changing the perception of UKIP as a “far-right” party. He may not have succeeded fully, but he has dispelled the widespread perception that it is racist. I last spoke to him in 2008, when his party and his own leadership were in crisis, riven with plotting. An unlikely moderniser, Farage was having his own “Clause IV moment”: a battle to expel British National Party infiltrators and broaden the party’s appeal. The battle was bruising, but helpful. Farage had conducted private polling to find out what put people off voting UKIP. He found that he needed to reach out to those who felt they might be “isolationist,” or a closet racist party. Farage’s UKIP calls for a five year halt to immigration, but has no policy towards those already here. The BNP on the other hand has gone from a policy of “repatriation” of ethnic minorities in the UK to “voluntary repatriation.”
Farage’s breakthrough came in 2009, the year he now says marked the “real beginning” of UKIP. Following the expenses scandal and public alienation from all three main parties, UKIP began soaring in the polls. In May that year, a YouGov poll for The Sun showed UKIP on 15 per cent, only 5 per cent behind the governing Labour Party.
At the European elections in June, UKIP’s seats in the European parliament went up by one to 13. The party beat Labour to second place, winning 16.5 per cent, or 2.5 million votes. Despite this, Farage stepped down as leader, ostensibly to fight the Buckingham seat against the Speaker, John Bercow, at the 2010 general election. He says now that “it was not really about Bercow,” and that he needed a break from the infighting and management.
In what he tells me was a life-changing experience, Farage was in a light-aircraft crash during the campaign. He walked away from the upturned plane, badly injured and with blood pouring down his face. Farage reveals that “the accident has changed me a bit.” He says he had a short fuse, that he was “the kind of guy” who had shouting matches with other drivers. And now “I don’t let the little things worry me any more.”
In August 2010, while still recovering from his injuries, Farage got a call from his successor as leader, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, who announced he was standing down. Farage urged him to stay, but knew the decision had been made. He stayed up all night smoking before the deadline for deciding whether to stand again. Even at breakfast he had doubts, he says, but he did stand, and won by a huge margin—60 per cent to the runner up’s 20 per cent. Farage, whose decision was influenced by Alex Salmond’s example in serving as SNP leader for a second time, says that this time he has the mandate to lead the party in his own way.
This means more public meetings, at which Farage excels. Every month, he conducts talks around the UK, with jokes, banter and arguing. He is not short on invitations from around Europe and says that “I could spend my whole time travelling.” Social media has been of great use. His appearances inside the European parliament are a hit on YouTube, including the time that he accused Herman Van Rompuy, EU council president, of having “all the charisma of a damp rag and the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk.” Under the best clips, Farage, who has 35,000 followers on Twitter, receives hundreds of messages of support, some from people in other EU countries, including Greece.
Farage may be on his way to fulfilling his ambition to be an MP—with the help of Wheeler, who plans to target key marginal seats. Pollsters suggest most UKIP voters will “return” to the Conservatives come the general election. It remains doubtful that UKIP will overtake the Lib Dems in the Commons.
At times in our conversation, Farage appears rueful, frustrated and even disdainful about his party. In the past, UKIP has had a toxic element. But through reform, popular public appearances and by broadening its base, Farage has made it a serious force. The next big challenge is the European elections in June 2014. Asked how UKIP will do, Farage says: “We aim to win. We aim to win and cause an earthquake in British politics.”