A remarkable party was held last Nov. 24 at the Ritz Hotel here in honor of Nigel Farage, the politician who did more than any other to create the conditions for last June’s referendum vote on Britain’s membership in the European Union. While Mr. Farage had already stepped down as leader of the populist U.K. Independence Party, this was his moment. President-elect Donald Trump had just tweeted that he would do a “great job” representing “Great Britain as their ambassador to the United States.” This was seen as payback for Mr. Farage’s support during the Trump campaign: He spoke at a rally in Jackson, Miss., and frequently appeared on Fox News, where he was bafflingly introduced as the “leader of the British opposition.”
Today, less than six months after that evening at the Ritz, the party Mr. Farage led to triumph in the Brexit vote is on the point of collapse. In local elections across Britain last week, the “people’s army” of UKIP was routed, losing 145 council seats, gaining just one. According to the BBC, the party’s share of the vote in England collapsed to just 5 percent from 22 percent in the last such election in 2013. UKIP goes into next month’s general election in disarray and with no hope of securing even a single seat in Britain’s Parliament. How could the party have fallen so fast?
The short answer to that question was supplied by Douglas Carswell, a former Conservative member of Parliament who joined UKIP in 2014, and was re-elected as the party’s sole representative in the House of Commons. After last week’s catastrophic election results, he declared the party, which he had recently quit, to be finished.
“As UKIP’s first — and last — M.P., I am far from despondent,” he wrote. “In fact, I am elated. Why? Because we have won.” To translate, UKIP was formed to achieve Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. With that done, it has no reason to exist — except that it will continue to have a half-life in the one institution where the party still has significant representation: the European Parliament, which it despises.
The collapse of UKIP was hastened by the repositioning of the Conservatives as the party of Brexit. Theresa May was a reluctant Remainer during the referendum campaign, but emerged last July as the now pro-Leave party’s leader, succeeding David Cameron as prime minister. She wants the Tories to become the party of “ordinary working families,” of those who are “just about managing,” and she swiftly fired or demoted many of Mr. Cameron’s closest allies, the well-connected, metropolitan “chumocracy.”
No liberal globalizer or free market ideologue, Ms. May believes in social cohesion and a strong state, as well as in reducing immigration. Her language is strikingly communitarian and softly nationalist. Ms. May is Britain’s first post-liberal prime minister.
She has accepted the necessity for a hard — she prefers “clean” — Brexit, which means Britain leaving the European single market and customs union. By doing so, and rejecting the political and economic consensus of the Blair, Brown and Cameron governments, she has reunited the right, realigned British politics and rendered UKIP irrelevant. Set to win a landslide victory in the general election, the so-called Brexit election, on June 8, she is poised to bring the people’s army home to the Tories.
Eliminating UKIP is a remarkable coup for Ms. May. At its electoral peak in the 2015 general election, this renegade coalition of disaffected Tory nationalists and former Labour voters unhappy about mass immigration won nearly four million votes, compared with nearly 9.4 million for the Labour Party. (If Britain had a proportional system of representation in Parliament, UKIP would have won as many as 83 seats, compared with Labour’s 232, instead of just the one, Mr. Carswell’s.)
But for its leader, Nigel Farage, winning seats in the House of Commons was never the prize. A former City broker in the metals market who was educated at the exclusive Dulwich College in London (a school today popular with Russian oligarchs), Mr. Farage sees himself as an anti-system radical. He told me once that the historical figure with whom he most identifies is John Wilkes, the 18th-century parliamentary agitator and pamphleteer. For Mr. Farage, the overriding mission of UKIP was to force the Cameron government to hold a plebiscite on Britain’s membership in the European Union. In this, he succeeded.
There was nothing anti-establishment about November’s gathering at the Ritz, where roast beef, coronation chicken and Ferrero Rocher chocolates were served. Among the guests were Sir Frederick Barclay, the billionaire who, with his reclusive identical twin brother, owns the Ritz as well as The Daily Telegraph, Britain’s leading conservative broadsheet newspaper; Richard Desmond, billionaire proprietor of The Daily Express; Arron Banks, an insurance tycoon and UKIP donor who claims to have spent £7.5 million (nearly $10 million) on the Leave campaign; and Simon Heffer, the authorized biographer of the anti-immigration politician Enoch Powell. Lord Ashcroft, a billionaire businessman and former deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, provided sparkling wine from his vineyard in Kent. It was Mr. Farage’s accomplishment to have corralled these forces — donors, press barons and influencers — behind his single-issue cause.
Earlier that month, shortly before the American presidential election, he had attended a dinner hosted by The Spectator magazine to accept a “lifetime achievement” award from George Osborne, the former chancellor of the Exchequer and chief strategist in the Cameron government. Mr. Farage had been drinking — he relishes being photographed holding a cigarette and a pint of beer — and gave a raucous, triumphalist speech in which he mocked the “pasty-faced” Mr. Osborne. He then told the guests, who included Prime Minister May, that Donald Trump would be “the next leader of the Western world.”
This was received with derision, but Mr. Farage was in a fighting mood: “What’s the matter with you? But that’s, of course, the attitude that you all took towards Brexit. It could never happen.” And he went on, “My achievement has been to take an issue that was considered to be completely wrong, perhaps even immoral, and help to turn it into a mainstream view in British politics.”
It was a fair assessment. In 2006, Mr. Cameron had foolishly dismissed UKIP members as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” — a remark as unfortunate and ill-judged as Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” — yet it was they who ended up winning the race they cared most about, bringing down the Cameron premiership along the way. The Brexiteers exceeded even their own expectations by winning the referendum last June, and — with his job done — Mr. Farage stood down from UKIP’s leadership.
Undone by its own success, the party is now struggling to redefine itself. Its new leader, Paul Nuttall, a bearded, bespectacled fantasist from Liverpool, has none of Mr. Farage’s easy, blokeish banter and gift for popular communication. His strategy appears to be to remake UKIP as an anti-immigrant, Islamophobic party in the style of other far-right parties in Europe like Geert Wilders’s Freedom Party in the Netherlands and the nationalist Sweden Democrats. Mr. Nuttall’s headline policy initiative in the run-up to the general election has been to call for a ban on the burqa. But UKIP’s leader inspires pity rather than alarm, while his party has become something of a national joke as it descends into factionalism.
As for Mr. Farage, for all of his boorishness and illiberalism, he remains one of the great radicals of the postwar period. Through sheer force of will, charisma and dogged monomania, he did more than anyone to popularize the once-fringe cause of Brexit. UKIP was, in effect, a pressure group that Mr. Farage transformed into a national movement. If the party is now in terminal decline, it is because its mission to take Britain out of the European Union has been achieved. Call it the revenge of the fruitcakes.
Jason Cowley is the editor of The New Statesman.