He drinks, he smokes, he jokes around and he hates being called a politician. And yet Nigel Farage is the hottest thing in British politics these days and his United Kingdom Independence Party, or Ukip, is on the verge of eclipsing the reigning Conservative Party in popular support.
Mr. Farage's message of promoting less immigration, pulling Britain out of the European Union and opposing gay marriage is resonating across the country. And as Prime Minister David Cameron fumbles explaining his own EU policy – renegotiation followed by a referendum sometime before 2017 – and pushes ahead with gay marriage despite mounting criticism from his Conservative caucus, Ukip's popularity grows. Immigration, too, is an issue for Mr. Cameron, particularly after this week's killing of a British soldier on the streets of London, allegedly by Islamic militants. All of which plays into Mr. Farage's hands.
A poll this week put Ukip's support at 22 per cent, just two points back of the Conservatives. (Labour leads the pack at 35 per cent.) Earlier this month, Ukip won 24 per cent of the vote in county elections and there is growing talk of defections by Tory members of Parliament – a remarkable turnaround considering that in the last general election in 2010, Ukip got 3 per cent of the vote.
It's not hard to see why Ukip's popularity has surged. A weak economy, a fractious Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government and growing fear about waves of immigration from Eastern Europe have all given Mr. Farage a receptive audience. He gets resounding support in places like Boston, a small city in northern England that has seen a huge increase in Polish immigrants in the past 10 years, drawn to the area by low-paying jobs in the food-processing sector. It's in Boston and other parts of rural England where Ukip is strongest, places where devotion to country and a British way of life remain paramount.
Mr. Farage knows about the suspicions levelled at Ukip – that it is racist, fascist and harbours white supremacists. It doesn't help his cause that he has had to expel some members recently for making racist comments and having ties to the far-right British National Party. In an interview with The Globe and Mail last December, Mr. Farage talked openly about his years trying to rid the party of its "idiot wing," members so nationalistic "they believed Sodom and Gomorrah starts at Calais." He said he also drew on his background in business, as a trader on the London Metals Exchange, to recast Ukip as a libertarian party with a mission to reclaim Britain.
Today the charges against Ukip are not only unfair, he believes, they are pointless because the party is attracting ethnic supporters and immigration has become a national debate. And the money men of the City are beating a path to his door.
During a presentation to foreign reporters on Friday, Mr. Farage looked like someone who knows he has tripped up British politics and is enjoying it. He laughed, told jokes, chided a reporter from New Zealand about cricket and pounded away at his main theme: not just getting Britain out of the EU, but ending the EU altogether.
"I am not a politician at all," he told a gathering of foreign reporters Friday with a wry smile. "I'm not in this for rank or position. I'm in this because I fundamentally want to change the nature of politics in this country and, above all, I want my country back."
As Mr. Cameron was enduring a growing caucus revolt this week – and fending off allegations a senior Tory official had called party members "swivel-eyed loons" – Mr. Farage took out an ad in the Daily Telegraph, urging Tories to join Ukip. The Conservative Party, he said in the ad, was "run by a bunch of college kids, none of whom have ever had a proper job in their lives."
Not everything is going Mr. Farage's way. He is starting to face intense scrutiny over Ukip's scant economic policies. He ran into dozens of protesters during a recent trip to Edinburgh and had to escape with a police escort. Later he referred to the demonstrators as "fascist scum" and hung up on a BBC Scotland interview when questioned too closely about his Scottish policies.
On Friday, he was pressed about his anti-immigration message and whether it might inflame ethnic tensions in light of the soldier's murder this week. He held firm to his party's position. "Excessive open-door immigration leads to split communities and leads to enmities between groups of people," he told the journalists. "We believe that actually getting a grip on Britain's immigration policy might just give us a chance for more assimilation." Extremism is on the rise across Europe, he added, as the debate over the continent's future intensifies. "It won't be Ukip that brings down the euro. It will be large-scale violence on the streets of those Mediterranean countries and the rise of extreme nationalist political parties," he said.
For now, though, Mr. Farage is basking in the glow as leader of a protest party that is finally being taken seriously. And he looks to Canada and the Reform Party for inspiration. When asked late last year by this reporter if he would like to see Ukip take over the Conservative Party much like Reform did in Canada, he smiled and said: "It would be quite delicious if it worked that way."