On a rainy Friday night in the middle of January, Nigel Farage stands in front of a small crowd at the local soccer team’s clubhouse in Ramsgate, a decaying port town in Kent County on England’s south coast.
The leader of the U.K. Independence Party is there to kick off his campaign for a seat in the British Parliament in the May 7 general election, Bloomberg Markets magazine will report in its April issue. Alongside a purple and yellow “Join the People’s Army” UKIP banner, Farage delivers a jokey, self-deprecating speech laced with acid allusions to what he sees as the great twin threats to British culture and the economy: immigration and the European Union.
Farage, a former commodities trader with a smoker’s cough and a horsy grin, has the audience of 150 or so people in his thrall as he rattles off numbers to bolster his point that EU rules allowing the free movement of people across member states have led to the ruin of the British economy.
They gasp in disbelief when he tells them that net migration surged to 260,000 last year, up from just 17,000 in 1983, when it was “about the size of two large villages.”
“People are sick of open-border immigration,” he says to a throng that’s mostly male, mostly over 50, and mostly new to UKIP. “It’s irresponsible madness to not have control.”
It’s a message that has transformed Farage from gadfly to agenda setter since UKIP won more seats than any other U.K. party in last year’s European Parliament election. He’s forced the governing Conservatives and the opposition Labour Party to come up with their own immigration-control measures.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who once wrote off UKIP as “a bunch of fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists,” has embraced Farage’s central rallying cry, vowing to hold a referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017 if the Tories return to government following the general election.
In its election platform, Cameron’s party pledges to bar immigrants from receiving welfare benefits until they’ve been in the country for four years. Labour says it will hire 1,000 new border guards.
In the polls, which show that immigration is the most important issue to voters, UKIP has leapfrogged the Liberal Democrats to become Britain’s No. 3 party. All of this leaves Farage hoping he can be a power broker after the election, since neither the Conservatives nor Labour are in a position to win a majority.
Farage’s polemics echo across political battlegrounds on the Continent. After seven years of economic recession and stagnation, anti-immigration, anti-EU parties are on the rise. From the right come parties that, like UKIP, draw strength from anti-immigration sentiment: the Sweden Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, and France’s National Front, whose leader, Marine Le Pen, is seen as a viable contender for president in the 2017 elections.
From the left come parties that share UKIP’s hostility to Brussels, big banks, and other forces that seem beyond people’s control: Spain’s Podemos and Greece’s Syriza, whose leader, Alexis Tsipras, became prime minister in January.
“Across Europe, it’s now fairly typical for between 10 to 20 percent of the electorate to back some form of nationalist party,” says Peter Kellner, president of YouGov, a U.K. polling company. “Traditional safe jobs that went with big places of production — coal mines, shipyards, car factories — are dying and being replaced by less secure jobs. People blame immigration for a phenomenon that actually has other roots.”
Just days before Farage launched his campaign in Ramsgate, he is raging against his pet peeves in enemy territory: Strasbourg, France. Since 1999, Farage has been a member of the European Parliament, which meets in both Brussels and Strasbourg — an institution that he has simultaneously served in and railed against.
The pub-loving UKIP leader has committed to an alcohol-free January, his first in eight years, and he’s fighting the urge for a glass of Bordeaux to accompany his steak frites at Le Cornichon Masque, a favorite haunt.
He’s fresh from controversy: Following the January terrorist shootings in and around Paris that killed 17 people, he sparked outrage among mainstream politicians when he spoke in the EU Parliament of a homegrown “fifth column” of Islamic militants bent on taking down “our Judeo-Christian” way of life.
Shock and Awe
Farage, 50, is wearing a new navy-blue silk tie inscribed with the mock Latin phrase “non illegitimi carborundum” (“don’t let the bastards grind you down”), a reference to his run-ins with political opponents and the London press.
Over lunch, he utters the kind of shock-and-awe statements that rile those who say he’s peddling a dangerous ideology. What’s wrong with hardworking, tax-paying migrants from EU member states in Eastern Europe coming to the U.K.?
“Why don’t we open the doors to the whole of Africa?” he says. “We’ve got into a political and economic union with Romania. So you might as well let Africa in as well.”
That’s the crux of Farage’s argument: that cheap labor is swamping the U.K., stealing British jobs and depressing wages. He says immigration is the cause of a 15 percent drop in real wages since 2008, citing a figure from the 700,000-member GMB union.
Farage — who’s married to a German, Kirsten Mehr, with whom he has two teenage daughters — says EU immigrants from Eastern Europe are the main culprits in turning Britain into a “cheap-labor economy.”
“We’d be quite happy to have a free-movement deal with France and Germany, because wages are roughly similar,” he says.
The rebound in the U.K. economy, which expanded 2.7 percent in 2014 after six years of slow or negative growth, has failed to dent Farage’s popularity. During the 12 months through September 2014, according to the U.K. Office for National Statistics, net migration rose by 42 percent — to 298,000 — as workers from across the EU flocked to the fastest-growing economy in Europe. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development estimates there are 670,000 Poles living in the U.K.
Farage has played on the economic anxiety of ordinary Brits outside of booming London, which is growing faster than any other U.K. region. Finding fertile ground among people who haven’t benefited from the recovery, he blames the influx of EU migrants for straining welfare and health-care systems already crippled by austerity-led budget cuts.
“Farage is a dangerous piece of work,” says Alan Sked, a professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Sked, who was a founder of UKIP in 1993, quit the party four years later, citing its lurch to the far right. He says Farage is a racist, a charge Farage vehemently denies.
“Sometimes I think UKIP is my Frankenstein, that I’ve created a monster,” Sked says. “They’re a reactionary party trading on prejudice without any rational or intellectual basis. The economy is aided by immigration.”
Farage dismisses the many studies that say immigration has been a boon to the U.K. economy.
“Pretty skinny stuff,” he says, eating his steak. “None of it prices in the cost of building new primary schools or new roads or extra beds in hospitals.”
Yet a study by University College London’s Centre for Research & Analysis of Migration established that from 2001 to 2011, migrants from 10 Eastern European countries (Bulgaria and Romania joined the EU in 2007) contributed 12 percent more in taxes than they received in benefits; the figure for migrants from 15 countries in Western Europe was 64 percent.
By championing a program to leave the EU, slash taxes, and enact laws to limit immigration, UKIP has turned itself into a British version of the Tea Party in the U.S. In January, YouGov’s Kellner predicted that UKIP would likely win six or so of 650 seats in the May election, while mounting a serious challenge for another 20.
Like the Tea Party, UKIP’s clout is greater than its numbers — and unlike the Tea Party, UKIP supporters have a single charismatic leader to rally around, heightening the party’s power. For months, the Conservatives and Labour have been hovering at about 33 percent each in the polls.
The Tories, who are closer to Farage ideologically than Labour is, may need UKIP to prop up the next government if they don’t win an outright majority. Farage says he’s not interested in being part of a formal coalition and will only do a postelection pact with the Conservatives to support key legislation, like the budget, if the Tories push ahead with an EU referendum.
With Farage beating the drums, the U.K. may be marching toward a “Brexit,” as it’s known. Poll results vary, suggesting the outcome of a referendum is difficult to predict.
A poll conducted by Opinium Research in mid-February for the U.K.’s Observer newspaper showed that 51 percent of respondents would opt to leave the EU, while 49 percent would vote to stay in. At the same time, a YouGov poll published on Feb. 24 found 45 percent in favor of remaining in the EU and 35 percent wanting out, up from 34 percent in 2012.
The prospect of a Brexit has prompted business leaders to speak out.
“Having the U.K. be part of Europe is the best thing for all of us,” Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn told the BBC in January.
As much as Farage may appeal to euroskeptic Tories, he’s failed to win the backing of deep-pocketed City of London grandees who have traditionally financed the Conservative Party.
Crispin Odey, founder of Odey Asset Management, a $12 billion London hedge fund firm, has given UKIP 26,000 pounds since 2010, according to the U.K. Electoral Commission. But he says he can’t count himself a Farage man and doesn’t think the candidate can effect real change.
“Sadly, as much as I like him, he’s just not clever enough,” says Odey, who has all but stopped funding the Tories because he thinks Cameron hasn’t taken a hard enough line on the EU, among other things. “Do I think he will storm the palace? No. He’s not a great general but an honest if slightly mad colonel. My gamekeeper will vote UKIP. My clever political friends are not UKIP people.”
Farage’s message is seductive in its simplicity. He’s promising to abolish all taxes on anyone earning the minimum wage, or up to 13,500 pounds ($20,800) a year; to decrease tax rates to 35 percent from 40 percent for middle-income earners; and to trim the highest rate to 40 percent, down from 45 percent.
Quitting the EU
In total, UKIP’s proposed tax cuts could cost roughly 20 billion pounds a year — or about half the U.K. defense budget – – according to James Browne, an economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London. That’s a much bigger tax reduction than any other party is proposing, Browne says.
Farage says Britain would be able to afford the cuts by quitting the EU, saving 8 billion pounds a year in membership fees paid to Brussels. He also wants to chop 9 billion pounds from the 11.4-billion-pound foreign aid budget, getting rid of everything except immunization and clean water programs.
“Their figures don’t add up,” says Christopher Snowdon, an economist at the Institute of Economic Affairs in London. “They’re not going to be able to balance the books by getting out of the EU and cutting foreign aid.”
Asked how he’d orchestrate his dream exit from the EU, Farage is hazy. Wouldn’t the U.K. have to renegotiate dozens, if not hundreds, of bilateral trade deals?
“Not very difficult,” he says. “A few little bits of tidying up.”
And yet more than 3 million U.K. jobs and 155 billion pounds in exports — more than half of Britain’s total — are tied to the EU’s 27 other member states, according to the U.K. Treasury. Farage’s broad-brush approach to the facts gives euroskeptics like Odey pause.
“He has no mechanism for getting from here to his ivory tower,” Odey says. “How can we have a referendum if we haven’t thought through the alternative?”
Farage’s appeal is much more evident in the parliamentary constituency of South Thanet, where Farage is running. He’s set up his headquarters in Ramsgate, about 32 kilometers (20 miles) east of Canterbury, in an old betting shop across the street from a shuttered exotic-pet store and a tattoo parlor.
‘Sorry We’re Full’
More than 1,500 people lost their jobs in 2011 when Pfizer closed the R&D site in nearby Sandwich that had developed Viagra. Another 150 jobs disappeared a year ago with the closure of Manston Airport, a former military airbase that more recently operated as a cargo and passenger hub.
As the local economy struggles, Farage pins the blame largely on immigrants, even though the number of foreign-born residents in South Thanet is 9 percent, below the national average of 12.4 percent, according to 2011 census figures compiled by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford.
A UKIP flier making the rounds in South Thanet, about 110 kilometers southeast of London, depicts the nearby white cliffs of Dover on the English Channel wrapped in an announcement: “Sorry We’re Full.” It warns that 1 million migrants are expected to reach Britain’s shores every five years.
One pamphlet in Farage’s campaign office in Ramsgate is from Christian Soldiers–UKIP. It describes the EU as “the hidden face of Satanism, a terrifying challenge to democracy and our entire Christian way of life.”
Farage says he allows splinter groups to associate themselves with the party “provided they behave reasonably.” “They are not officially UKIP,” he adds.
Farage says low-wage Eastern Europeans are undercutting British workers in South Thanet and across Britain. Locals say most of the 500 or so employees at Thanet Earth — which runs the U.K.’s largest greenhouse complex and grows tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers on 89 hectares (220 acres) — are Poles and other Eastern Europeans.
“A lot of British people feel discriminated against in their own country,” Farage says. “If you don’t speak Polish, no job.”
Judy Whittaker, a spokeswoman for Thanet Earth, says she can’t comment on the number of foreign workers employed there, adding, “We don’t recruit on the basis of nationality.”
Beneath the low-slung ceiling of the clubhouse at Ramsgate Football Club, Farage presents himself to the crowd as the imperfect everyman. He says he did badly at school, leaving at the age of 18. He was divorced in his 30s, in a serious car crash in his 20s, and in a small-plane crash five years ago.
Unlike most “career politicians” in Westminster, he says, he’s had his ups and downs and got into politics only because he was fed up with getting what he felt was a raw deal.
“With me, whether you like it or not, what you see is what you get,” he says. “I mean what I say. I say what I mean. I’m not afraid of anybody.”
Farage’s campaign stump CV differs a bit from his real-life CV in tone, if nothing else. Like Cameron, Farage attended private school — Dulwich College in south London — and is the son of a stockbroker.
In the 1980s, he got his start in business working as a commodities trader in London’s financial district at Drexel Burnham Lambert, the now-defunct U.S. investment bank, alongside Michael Spencer, who would go on to found interdealer broker ICAP. In Ramsgate, his Drexel job becomes a job in “the metal trading industry,” “working with industry,” buying and selling “things that go into our cars and washing machines.”
Running and Losing
A member of the Conservative Party in the 1980s, Farage quit the Tories in 1992 after Conservative Prime Minister John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty, which paved the way for a more-integrated European Union. With members of the Anti-Federalist League, which had campaigned against the treatym, Farage helped found UKIP in 1993 to push for the U.K. to exit the EU.
Farage isn’t a sure bet in South Thanet. He’s run for parliament as a UKIP candidate in different seats in the last four U.K. elections and lost.
This time around may be different. An Ashcroft poll in November put Farage at 32 percent, versus 33 percent for the Conservative candidate, Craig Mackinlay, another founding member of UKIP, who switched to the Tories in 2005 and remains a euroskeptic.
Farage, who didn’t start campaigning until January, shuttles between Brussels, Strasbourg, and Kent, juggling his day job as a member of the European Parliament with his dream job as a House of Commons MP.
In a sense, Farage has already notched a victory by shifting Britain’s political landscape. If he wins in South Thanet, he’ll rack up another one — one that could leave the spoiler chortling at those “bastards” on his silk tie.