The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Britain’s far-right firebrand may be making his last stand

UKIP Leader Nigel Farage, center, meets local people at the Thanet Beer Festival in Margate, Kent, as he continues his campaign for the South Thanet seat at the general election. (Gareth Fuller/Press Association Images)

For more than a year, the beer-
swilling, immigration-bashing ­Nigel Farage has dominated British debate with an insurgent message that has struck fear into the heart of London's elite and that critics say has dragged politics to new lows of nastiness.

Riding a wave of anti-establishment anger, Farage led the once-fringe U.K. Independence Party to a historic victory in the 2014 European election. He forced the country's mainstream parties onto his turf with calls to crack down on immigrants, slash foreign aid and exit the European Union. And he prompted predictions that UKIP would soon overturn Britain's ­century-old political order.

But Farage’s self-styled revolution could come to a screeching and unexpected halt next month if he loses his bid for Parliament.

“There’s a grand coalition of people who want to stop this man,” said Will Scobie, Farage’s opponent from the center-left ­Labor Party. “If we can beat Farage, it will set UKIP back — perhaps permanently.”

UKIP strategists scoff at that claim. But there is no doubt that the party's appeal has fallen in recent months as the focus has shifted to the knife-edge contest between Labor and the Conservatives for control of 10 Downing Street. The election on May 7 could be a crucial barometer of whether the sort of European right-wing populism that Farage embodies is now past its peak.

That would mark a dramatic shift after years in which the far right has surged across Europe on the back of voter frustration with ailing economies and open-door immigration policies. In last year’s European Parliament elections, UKIP was just one of a number of far-right parties that trumped their mainstream competitors.

But with European economies healing — albeit slowly — the far right may be losing some of its magic. In France, for instance, ­Marine Le Pen’s National Front performed below expectations in regional elections last month, while the party’s leadership has become embroiled in an epic family feud. In Greece, Ireland, Scotland and Spain, meanwhile, progressive and radical leftist parties have been gaining.

UKIP won 27 percent of the vote in European elections last year, besting all rivals and marking the first time in more than a century that a party other than Labor or the Conservatives has topped a national election in Britain. But current polls suggest that it will take only 13 percent of the vote in next month’s all-important British parliamentary elections. That would give UKIP just a handful of representatives in the 650-member Parliament.

UKIP activists, though, relish the thought that Farage could be among them. A seat on the green leather benches of the House of Commons, they feel, would give their leader the perfect platform from which to shake the foundations of the nation’s political ­establishment.

That's also why Labor and the Conservatives so desperately want to see him lose. The 51-year-old former commodities trader, who has acknowledged a variety of health problems, has said he will resign as party leader if he isn't among the UKIP members who win seats in Parliament next month for the first time in a general election. That would deprive UKIP of the charismatic figure who has galvanized a group that Prime Minister David Cameron once derided as a bunch of "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists."

“The stakes for Farage and for UKIP are very high,” said Tony Travers, a London School of Economics political scientist. “No party is only one man. But his profile and his capacity to deal with the media mean he is extremely ­important.”

And because UKIP has ­siphoned support from Labor and the Conservatives, Travers said, both parties “hope to see UKIP reduced back to nothing.”

Smelling blood, UKIP’s legions of opponents have in recent days begun pouring into this coastal area — known as South Thanet — in hopes of turning the contest into Farage’s last stand.

The Conservatives have deployed cabinet ministers to back candidate Craig Mackinlay, a former UKIP leader who says he’s running as a center-right Tory because his party “can deliver, instead of just shouting from the sidelines.”

Meanwhile, Owen Jones, a columnist with the liberal Guardian newspaper, staged a “Stop Farage” rally Sunday at a Ramsgate pub.

"It's election night. Nigel Farage has lost his bid to become South Thanet's new MP. After years of being built up by the media, his entire political project has been humiliated, and UKIP are in turmoil," the Facebook page advertising the event offers tantalizingly. "This could happen."

UKIP doesn’t think so. Farage has run an uncharacteristically coy campaign, avoiding the media spotlight and eschewing much direct contact with voters. But party loyalists say they are confident that UKIP’s core supporters will come out on election day and that the split in the anti-Farage vote between Labor and the Conservatives will deliver UKIP a victory.

Even if it doesn’t, they say that hopes of UKIP’s demise are dramatically overstated.

“If they think for a second that they’re going to cut the head off the snake by defeating Nigel, they’re massively, massively underestimating the party,” said a UKIP strategist who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter.

UKIP's confidence is built at least in part on the public's undimmed anger over immigration. Farage plays on that sentiment, making a point during a debate this month to say that HIV-positive foreigners should not be treated by Britain's National Health Service.

The comment was described by the British media as part of a "shock and awful" strategy to motivate core UKIP voters, and on the streets of Ramsgate, there were signs that it's working.

“The system needs a bust-up,” said John Devonport, a retiree who smoked a cigarette while staring across the English Channel to the French coast one recent day. “There are just too many immigrants here.”

But just down the waterfront, 39-year-old Kandy Jones said that after initially being intrigued by Farage’s message, she has concluded that he wants to exploit people’s problems, not solve them.

“Farage knows this place is so depressed, it’s a good place to start a political war,” Jones said from her perch operating a snack stand along the town’s faded boardwalk. “He wants a step up. But I hope it’s the end of him.”

Karla Adam in London contributed
to this report.

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