When the sun shines on the town of Clacton-on-Sea on the east coast of England, its seafront plays host to sunbathers, kids feeding coins into arcade machines and shopkeepers hawking beach balls on the sandswept promenade. But the sky on April 23 was overcast, and it hung over a different sort of crowd.
A few hundred people gathered at Clacton’s pier, many bearing pro-Brexit signs and wearing Union Jack pins. As Nigel Farage, the man they had come to see, stepped up on stage, the local politician who introduced him told the crowd what they already knew: “He is the Godfather of Brexit.”
Farage is the former leader of the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, a political movement dedicated to bringing the country out of the European Union — a goal the party helped realize in the “Brexit” referendum of June 2016. It was the victory Farage had spent decades dreaming of, and after the result came through, he stepped down. “My political ambition,” he said in July 2016, “has been achieved.”
But now, Farage is back and touring the Brexit heartland in search of another political upset. On May 23, along with every member state in the E.U, the U.K. will hold elections for the European Parliament — a vote it never intended to hold as the formal exit from the E.U. was initially scheduled for March 29. But as that deadline approached, Prime Minister Theresa May could not convince a majority of lawmakers to ratify the exit deal she had struck with the E.U., and she decided to ask for a delay. Now, Brexit has been pushed back to October 31 — and the U.K. must, by law, vote in E.U. elections next month.
That was enough to reel the Brexit Godfather back into British politics. He kept a low public profile after stepping down as UKIP leader in 2016, and left the party altogether in December, criticizing the party’s pivot to an anti-Islam platform as it struggled for a new constituency after the main parties pledged to deliver Brexit. In April, he launched a new political movement called The Brexit Party. Within a week, the party was polling in first place, ahead of May’s Conservatives and the official opposition Labour Party, with 27 percent of voters polled by YouGov saying they would vote for Farage’s Brexit Party.
His message was again one of insurgent anger. “We have openly and willfully been betrayed by our government,” Farage told the crowd in Clacton, where there were more than two “leave” voters for every “remain” one in the 2016 referendum. “I haven’t come out of semi-retirement to muck about,” he said. “Of course we’re going to win.”
The victory would be mostly symbolic, as any elected lawmakers would stand down once Brexit finally happens. But it could still have major repercussions. For May, who has been fending off calls to resign for months, a poor performance in E.U. elections would give extra ammunition to those calling for her to go. For her Conservative Party, it threatens to echo the impact that Farage had on policy as the leader of UKIP in the early 2010s: putting pressure on the Conservatives by stealing right-leaning voters, incentivizing them to adopt more hardline policies. And for the country, it could add yet another wrinkle in the stuttering political process to bring the U.K. out of the E.U.
Just like three years ago, Farage has the opportunity to reshape politics from the outside. If his playbook from 2016 is anything to go by, that’s where he prefers. He has never been elected to the U.K. Parliament despite seven attempts, and although he has been an elected Member of the European Parliament since 1999, other MEPs have criticized him for rarely turning up.
His role in the Brexit campaign won Farage some powerful friends. In August 2016, he appeared in the U.S. to speak at a rally in support of then-candidate Donald Trump, who introduced him as “Mr. Brexit.” Now, he has spied the opportunity to play the role again in this year’s unexpected E.U. elections. What he and his other announced candidates will do if elected is a separate question, one that Farage has so far avoided addressing in any detail.
No political upset could possibly match the scale of Farage’s victory in 2016. But as seagulls circled over Clacton, he warned that 2019 could be the start of something at least comparable. “Do you believe that this political class now needs to be swept aside and replaced by better people?” The crowd roared yes. “Well that is what we are going to do!”
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