The Telegraph has been carrying the amusing but unfortunate story of charity cyclist Matt Adams, who swerved off the road and dived head-first into the long grass after taking his hands off the handlebars of his bike to strike a victory pose for a photographer. There could be no better analogy for UKIP’s fortunes over the past five days, with the long asphalt road representing the election campaign and the wayward bicycle as the party’s newfound trajectory following a series of stunning self-inflicted wounds.
Conventional wisdom has it that following his contentious interview on LBC radio last week in which he made sweeping and deeply unpleasant generalisations about Romanian immigrants, Nigel Farage has lit a long fuse to the dynamite underneath his political career. The interview – which Farage’s chief aide tried at one point to halt – can be seen in its entirety here:
The blowback, even from fellow eurosceptics and normally reliable media sympathisers, has been intense and unrelenting, with even The Sun publishing an editorial denouncing Farage’s comments as ‘racist’. The nation’s opinion columnists cannot agree on precisely how soon UKIP will founder, but a strong consensus says that it is only a matter of time.
For this, neither Nigel Farage nor the party he leads deserve sympathy. Such is the degree of euroscepticism within the country, the level of pent-up rage against the political establishment and the smug deafness of the main political parties that a strong showing for UKIP in the coming elections was all but assured – and, until recently, deserved.
In fact, because few voters pay attention to LBC radio interviews or the post-game coverage in the wider press, the party may actually avoid facing the real consequences until after Thursday’s European and local council elections, by which time the narrative could have changed in their favour. But when reality finally catches up with UKIP, no one will be able to say that it was undeserved.
Up until now, normal, non-racist UKIP sympathisers have largely been able to cling on to the narrative that while there may be some unpleasant and noisy individuals at the margins of the party, their principles remain solid and the leadership strong. But Nigel Farage’s image of calm, steady leadership has taken a justifiable beating over the weekend, and while UKIP supporters may abide instances of nastiness or foolishness coming from isolated candidates at the fringe, it is asking a lot to expect them to look the other way when the very same misdeeds are being committed at the top.
Nigel Farage’s “car crash” interview has effectively combined with the antics of the fruitcake fringe to trap UKIP’s more moderate supporters – fervent eurosceptics or libertarians without a racist bone in their bodies – in a pincer movement, and they now find themselves very exposed to the blanket charges of racism and xenophobia emanating from hostile media outlets such as the Guardian and the Huffington Post.
The sad thing is that Farage & co. have been here before, but clearly failed to learn the lessons from their last foot-shooting extravaganza.
At UKIP’s last party conference in September 2013, delegates were enjoying buoyant poll numbers and a period of unexpectedly benign press coverage when one rogue MEP, Godfrey Bloom, managed to spoil it all for everyone by making sexist comments at a fringe event, and then hitting a journalist over the head with a conference booklet while making his escape from the scene.
Instantly, the tone of the press coverage changed and any conceivable bounce from the conference was lost. No-one summed up the feeling of frustration within the party at the time better than Nigel Farage himself, who said in his closing speech:
There have been once or two incidents today … There is no media coverage of this conference. It’s gone. It’s dead. It’s all about Godfrey hitting a journalist and using an unpleasant four-letter word. It’s gone. And we can’t – put – up – with – it. And I said to you earlier, we cannot have any one individual – however fun or flamboyant or entertaining or amusing they are – we cannot have any one individual destroying UKIP’s national conference, and that is what he’s done today, and I’m sad about that, but we can’t tolerate it and we have to act.
The anger and frustration was real and visceral then:
Strong words, and yet Nigel Farage has effectively managed to equal Godfrey Bloom’s feat of self-sabotage a mere eight months later, and just days away from what could be UKIP’s pivotal moment. Will Farage now turn that same withering, critical analysis on himself?
UKIP does not have a deep bench of political talent from which they can draw in times of emergency or turmoil. They have no one else as charismatic as Nigel Farage, no one cannier with the press, no one better at putting out (or genially dismissing) the various fires that the party’s lesser candidates so frequently start. But can UKIP abide this eleventh-hour implosion from their leader?
The media’s coverage of UKIP, like the political establishment’s attitude toward the party, was never anything close to being fair and balanced. But the slurs and accusations that UKIPers complained about just last week are nothing compared to what comes now. As far as getting any kind of message out via the mainstream media goes now, it’s game over. UKIP is a racist party. Euroscepticism is just racism repackaged. Libertarians are in bed with racists. It has already started.
UKIP may yet emerge from this latest self-inflicted crisis relatively unscathed. There may be too little time between Farage’s gaffe and polling day for the impact to feed through to peoples’ voting intentions. UKIP could yet win the European election, in which case the narrative and news agenda will completely change, allowing UKIP to find their feet – until the next campaign, when the video and audio footage will be unearthed by every hostile journalist in the country.
Even in this best-case scenario for UKIP, the LBC interview is an urgent reminder that they simply cannot go on existing in the public consciousness as a one-man party, where Nigel Farage alone serves as chief executive, chief political strategist, chief policy architect, chief salesman and chief damage repair technician.
This twenty minute radio interview, this “car crash”, also reminds us that some of UKIP’s principles – euroscepticism, libertarianism, that fervent anti-establishment spirit – are too important to be entrusted to any one single person, even the leader.
The British voters deserve a eurosceptic, libertarian party that they can vote for in good conscience and without fear of unintentionally consorting with or abetting racists, while moderate UKIP supporters deserve to be able to watch the evening news without constant fear or trepidation of the next scandal about to beset them.
Whether Thursday’s elections bring triumph or disappointment for UKIP, there are now many serious questions to be answered. The party’s weaknesses have been brutally exposed under the unceasing glare of media scrutiny and through calamitous self-inflicted crises. And without new faces and the immediate jettisoning of the party’s nasty rhetoric on immigration (and the block of undesirable votes that come with it), things will only get worse.
When the cyclist Matt Adams plunged headfirst from his bicycle off the road and into the verge, he hopped back on the seat and continued riding, thinking that he had “got away with it” – until he crossed the finish line and realised that he had become a minor internet celebrity. The internet always remembers. People always remember. And the electorate will remember how nasty UKIP managed to make themselves look over the course of the past week, not just when they vote on Thursday but also when the more important general election takes place in 2015.
Whatever the result of Thursday’s European elections, UKIP – and respectable British euroscepticism – will now be stuck in damage control mode for many months to come.