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Week-in-Review: Decoding the Nigel Farage playbook

The essential story of Nigel Farage’s political career can be told through the opponents he has outlasted and those whose careers he has prematurely terminated. 

Still today, the most totemic of Farage’s political victories remains that over David Cameron in 2016. Having panicked Cameron into holding an EU referendum, the PM was essentially marched out of Downing Street on the UKIP leader’s orders. Three years later, Farage’s insurgent Brexit party spooked Conservative MPs into ousting Theresa May. It followed the 2019 European election which saw Farage’s latest eurosceptic vehicle vastly outcompete May’s Tories.

And this week Farage claimed another set of genuine scalps with the toppling of two of Britain’s most powerful bank executives. NatWest Chief Executive Dame Alison Rose was the first to quit amid the still unfolding “debanking” row — Coutts boss Peter Flavel followed on Thursday. These “exits”, to employ the bank’s own awkward vernacular, came after Farage pursued his grievances surrounding the closing of his Coutts account, brandishing a document which included revelations that his political opinions had been discussed prior to the termination process.

Through the 2010s, “Nigel always wins” was said to be an unwritten rule in UKIP as Farage led the party through incessant internecine scuffling. Now, in the battle of righteous Brexiteer versus regal bank, it seems Farage’s capacity for emerging on top endures. 

In the end, it is probably a testament to Farage’s powers of communications that the seven-time unsuccessful parliamentary candidate has acquired a reputation for winning. When asked by the BBC’s Nick Robinson whether — despite having failed on seven occasions — he now wants to get back into politics, Farage fired: “I’m sick to death of your condescending tone”. The former UKIP leader seized control of the interview, reminding Robinson of his political triumphs. 

Of course, throughout Farage’s time as a political activist, there has been a conspicuous consistency to his campaigning. He rails against “the elite”, ever-evoked but rarely defined by the privately-educated former stockbroker who spent 25 years working as an MEP. And he displays real skill in galvanising and directing sections of the British public at his unfortunate foes.

Harnessing his feeling of victimhood, Farage famously singles out his adversaries, giving his political acolytes an object at which to direct their anger. Sometimes it is an institution: think the EU or Coutts/Natwest. On other occasions — and sometimes simultaneously — it is a person: think Theresa May, Jean-Claude Juncker or Dame Alison Rose. 

He castigates his opponents as “the establishment” and his coterie of media supporters dutifully fall in behind. In this way, Farage’s foes become symbols and, lumped together, far greater in their assumed avarice than the sum of their parts. They develop as vessels, in to which the frustrations of Farage’s followers are distended. Each new opponent swells the sense of elite conspiracy. 

Amid this furore, which can quickly acquire an unruly momentum, Farage’s sense of timing and suspense is crucial. The Coutts saga, for example, was triggered by a seemingly innocuous video filmed in Farage’s living room and posted to his Twitter page a month ago on 29 June. 

The reactions to this video split rather neatly into atavistic “remain” and “leave” loyalties. The latter camp expressed serious misgivings about Farage’s account of events as he railed, once more, against the “establishment” for “trying to force me out of the UK by closing my bank accounts. Arguably, the lack of context provided in the clip (he pointed to a “prestigious institution”, keeping culprit “Coutts” quiet at this stage) created an instant feeling of mystery. The story was picked up by UK media and Farage’s inaugural account of his “political persecution” has now been viewed 27.5 million times.

But the key bombshell development in the “debanking” debacle was undoubtedly the 40-page dossier, revealed by Farage after a subject access request to Coutts, that showed the bank had been discussing how to cut ties with the former UKIP leader for months. Farage’s politics were “at odds with our position as an inclusive organisation”, the report read. But most damaging was the minutes of the Coutts reputational risk committee, which derided Farage as a “disingenuous grifter” who “pander[s] to racists”. It undermined the account of a Rose-informed BBC article, which suggested Farage’s exiting was purely commercial. The corporation subsequently apologised. 

But the Nigel Farage playbook, communication tactics aside, could equally be defined by his ruthlessness. The former UKIP leader was not content merely with the resignation of Dame Alison Rose, a seriously substantial scalp, nor is he even with Peter Flavel’s exit. He now wants the whole of the NatWest board to depart in the wake of his exiting from Coutts — it is a move which will provide plenty of content for his GB News show and keep the news cycle churning over on the topic during this slow recess season.

So while the Coutts debacle is ostensibly a reminder of the tightrope that banks must walk on potentially risky clients, it equally underlines Farage’s enduring political potency. 

The ensuing question is thus: where does the energy Farage has stoked and so skilfully harnessed over the Coutts saga flow next?

He has dominated headlines for weeks and won the enthusiastic backing of the government in the process; Labour has been more coy in its support, but is tentatively extending an olive branch to the UKIP alum. Brexit foes of yore, it appears, are breaking bread over Farage’s financial tumult. 

But it is an uncertain truce. A conspicuous theme amid the cessation of hostilities is that Farage could still cause significant mischief at the next election — perhaps even using the debanking debacle to propel himself back onto the political frontline, capitalising once more on a tarnished Tory brand.

And although Farage has praised the government, reserving his highest adulation for economic secretary Andrew Griffith, rarely have Conservative administrations conceded enough to placate Farage when pursuing a cause. This basic political fact might explain their enthusiasm for getting ahead of the Coutts story from the start. Of course, many of the Conservatives’ new working-class voters at the 2019 election came over via Farage’s UKIP in 2015, and many might return to him if he actively engaged again. No 10 will want to provide no incentive for Farage to escalate his campaigning zeal. 

But mulling over whether Farage will mount a fully-fledged comeback may distract from the Coutts saga’s most significant lesson: the former Brexit campaigner never really went away. 

Even before his debanking, Farage still stalked the headlines — explainable, in part, due to his presence as a nightly primetime GB News host. As the host of the right-wing channel’s flagship show, Farage has taken up the cudgels on the ECHR, small boats, the net zero policy, cancel culture and much, much more. 

So will a war on “woke capitalism” prove the wedge issue that Brexit was or immigration is? The answer is probably not. But in this latest phase of Farage’s political career, tectonic issues are no longer a requisite backdrop to his right-of-Conservative activism. For as long as Farage looms in the Conservative consciousness as a potentially crippling spoiler candidate in the long lead-in to a general election, he will maintain his influence. Rishi Sunak knows he must try his utmost not to upset Brexit’s lead cheerleader.