Nigel Farage – an opportunist pathogen

Nigel Farage’s ‘new’ Reform Party is doing exactly what the far-right has always done: exploiting misery, chaos and toxic conspiracy theories.

In 1919, with the world reeling from the impacts of the recently ended Great War and a devastating flu pandemic, Benito Mussolini was contemplating his future. As Denis Mack Smith writes in his History of Modern Italy: “Without a distinct policy, without friends and backing, he was in serious danger of ending up as a confused and egocentric demagogue with a talent for histrionics.”

But Mussolini, a consummate political opportunist, was not slow in spotting an opening amid the social and economic chaos that had engulfed Italy. In March 1919, he founded the so-called fasci di combattimento (“fighting leagues”) – the organisation that went on to become the world’s first fascist party.

One hundred years later, another egocentric demagogue was also contemplating his future in the wake of a general election that had seen his party gain not a single seat. Interviewed by the BBC the morning after Boris Johnson’s election victory in December 2019, Nigel Farage struggled to explain how the Brexit Party would find a role for itself now that Johnson’s Conservatives appeared to have robbed it of its sole policy and reason for existence. 

Insisting that he would stay in Britain to fight for a “proper” Brexit, Farage also said that he would be relaunching the Brexit Party under a new name, the Reform Party, though he appeared to have only a vague idea of what the policies of this new vehicle might be. He also indicated that he would be helping Donald Trump’s re-election efforts. “If I am asked to help, I will,” he told Andrew Neil.

Sure enough, last week Farage stood in front of a baying and almost entirely unmasked crowd at a ‘superspreader’ Trump rally in Phoenix, Arizona, to make public obeisance to the most dangerously deranged president America has ever seen.

In a foam-flecked torrent of flattery, Farage said he “was honoured to come to America to bring the Brexit message,” before going on to praise the world’s leading conman and tax-dodger as “the single most resilient and bravest person I have ever met in my life,” unmatched for his determination “to fight for patriotism and to fight against globalism”.

By voting for Trump, “you will be voting for decency,” bellowed the man who cheated on his wife with a UKIP aide, fiddled his MEP’s expenses and set up a trust fund in the Isle of Man to avoid UK taxes. Beside him on the podium, the Pussy Grabber in Chief grinned broadly.

Even by Farage’s standards, it was a vomit-inducing display of sycophancy. But it did highlight the fact that Trump and Brexit are very much part of the same far-right project. And yesterday we learned how Farage intends to take this forward in the UK.

Like Mussolini, Farage is above all a political opportunist, and – also like the founder of Italian fascism – he is not one to let chaos and misery go to waste. For far-right demagogues these are, in fact, the ideal conditions. Add in some toxic conspiracy theories about a “globalist” elite that is exploiting or even faking the pandemic for its own sinister purposes, and – hey presto! – the Reform Party has a purpose in life.

Announcing his latest move via the columns of the Daily Telegraph, Farage said that the party’s main aim would be to resist lockdown measures aimed at stopping the spread of Covid-19. The Reform Party would instead back a “focused protection” policy for the most vulnerable, while the virus would be allowed to spread among the rest of the population so that it could develop “herd immunity”.

In a video posted to Facebook and Twitter, Farage underlined that he was taking a lead from the approach of Donald Trump, which, he explained, is that “lockdown leads to economic disaster, leads to  mass depression and leads to vast numbers of people losing their jobs, their sense of security and their general sense of wellbeing. He says the vulnerable can protect themselves and the rest of us will have to learn to live with it.”

This was a remarkable volte face from a man who had asserted in March that he had been “more depressed than I had been in my adult life” to learn of Boris Johnson’s initial herd immunity strategy. Why? Because “I worked out pretty quickly that this tactic would result in 400,000 deaths.” But for Farage, consistency is – just as it was for Il Duce – a minor inconvenience. Nor has mass death proved much of a sticking point to his historical antecedents.

“I’ve had enough of lockdown,” Farage exclaimed. “They’re almost trying to put us back under house arrest in terms of travelling!” He seemed oblivious to the irony of this complaint issuing from a man seated on a gilded chair beneath the chandeliers of the Trump International Hotel in Washington.

Recent demonstrations against lockdown measures by anti-maskers (including such luminaries as David Icke, Piers Corbyn and the far-right thug Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, also known as Tommy Robinson) have no doubt encouraged Farage to believe that he is on to a winner with his base. Nor does he seem to be short of money to promote his latest venture. The arrival of the new party was accompanied by a projection of an anti-lockdown message onto the Houses of Parliament at Westminster – a stunt that made the front page of the Daily Mail. (By happy coincidence, nearly a century ago the Mail was promoting the Blackshirt movement of Oswald Mosley – the fascist leader who had been one of Farage’s heroes as a teenager.)

As Scottish journalist Martyn McGlaughlin revealed, the stunt had been organised by a company with close connections to lobbying firm World4Brexit, which had been promoted by Farage and launched at an event in New York last year that was attended by leading Trump supporters including Trump’s former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski.

At the same time, what appeared to be an orchestrated disinformation campaign was launched on social media, with multiple accounts posing as hospital nurses all posting identical messages to falsely claim that Covid-19 wards were “under-occupied” while non-Covid patients were being turned away. Social media disinformation expert Marc Owen Jones noted that this false information had been shared 1600 times on Twitter “by predominantly anti-EU and pro-Brexit types”, observing that “it is clear that this disinfo appeals to the Farage set”.

An opportunistic infection is one caused by pathogens that are able to exploit opportunities not normally available, such as a host with a weakened immune system. As we enter the second wave of a deadly pandemic, with the dire social and economic impacts of this soon to be exacerbated by the end of the Brexit transition period,  the immune system of Britain’s body politic has never been so compromised.

And, for Nigel Farage, this evidently presents an irresistible opportunity.