We should have known better. When the Brexit party was launched in a metal workshop just outside Coventry back in April, it looked like we were seeing a new Nigel Farage. A perma-tanned, more professional, healthier version of the boozy chancer who had hot-footed into the embrace of Donald Trump and the US alt-right chatshow circuit after leading Ukip into oblivion. The louder bigots and racists appeared to have been sidelined, to be replaced by leavers from the left and right who felt disenfranchised by the traditional parties and were ready to swear allegiance to King Nigel instead.
And when the Brexit party topped the polls in the European elections, helping to steer the Conservatives further to the right and toppling Theresa May in the process, it seemed that this time Farage might be here to stay. At least for a while. He was the one man who had the clout to keep the Tories – even when led by someone as slippery as Boris Johnson – honest in his tireless pursuit of a hard and damaging Brexit. A power behind the throne.
Yet we – and his followers – had all forgotten just one thing. The man himself. Because Nigel’s unique talent is to destroy everything he creates. He craves power but is unable to delegate or share it. People who disagree with him are cast out and crushed. Like Trump and Boris, he is a political narcissist who can see no further than his own reflection. He has no friends or equals. Only willing acolytes who are, from time to time, granted a slot as his warm-up act. Nigel makes the rules and Nigel changes them.
It was Nigel who chose not to stand as an MP in this election. Why bother when there’s so much more money to be made elsewhere? It was Nigel who arbitrarily decided to stand down 317 Brexit party candidates, all of whom had paid £100 for the privilege, in Tory held seats. It was Nigel who oversaw his party plummet in the polls from 17% to 4%. It was Nigel who turned Nigel and the Nigel party into an irrelevance.
And now it was slowly dawning on some of his most faithful retainers that they had been had. No one would call Brexit MEPs Lance Forman, Lucy Harris, John Longworth and Annunziata Rees-Mogg the brightest kids on the block, but even they had finally decided to call it a day by holding a central London press conference in which they would call on any Brexit party supporters to vote Tory instead.
The spirit of Nigel lives on, though. So it was entirely fitting that the press conference was a total shitshow. First it was delayed for 20 minutes because a Brexit party spokesman chose to have a rival press conference denouncing the breakaway four in an adjacent room.
“You’re all slags,” shouted the spokesman.
“You’re the slag,” the scabs yelled back.
“Who are you calling a slag, slags”.
We could have been back in the Ukip days. Euphoric recall and all that. A member of the press offered to get both sides together for a spot of mediation and couple’s counselling, but no one could agree on where it should take place. So it was left to the not-nice-but-dim four to cope as best they could. As in badly. There really was no explaining why they were now backing Boris’s Brexit deal that they had all described as a crock of a shit a few weeks ago. There again, they had all found a smidgeon of self-worth in finally finding a voice and standing up to Nigel, so I guess it was worth it. Baby steps and all that. Coherence might come later.
None of which was quite how Farage had envisaged his TV swansong in his interview with Andrew Neil. Then Nigel’s Last Stand was probably never going to end well, even if he hadn’t self-immolated over the preceding six weeks. After all the one rule of an Andrew Neil interview is that Andrew Neil always wins. End of.
“You’ve barely got a walk-on part in this election,” Neil said, his eyes barely open. “You’re going nowhere.” From the off, it sounded as if he was a bit bored. As if this really wasn’t a good use of half an hour of his time. Several times he had to check his pulse to reassure himself he was actually still alive. He was like a cat toying with a limbless mouse. Disappointed not to be getting any real pushback, and only going through the motions out of professional instinct.
Not that Neil was acting out of pity. He doesn’t do that. He can’t access that emotion. Just that it was all too easy. Teasing Nigel over his numerous mis-steps, his idiotic immigration policies, Islamophobia, his stated desire to privatise the NHS and his apparent support for Donald Trump’s right to talk about sexually assaulting whoever he liked. “You’re going to end up with no MPs and could be remembered as the man who thwarted Brexit,” he yawned. Nigel could do little but contradict himself, admit there was nothing he could do about Boris betraying Brexit and scarper out of the studio in search of a large Scotch and a revolver. Never to be seen again.
Neil only really came alive once Nigel had left. Then he addressed the camera and listed the questions of trust, propriety, Brexit and the NHS that he would like to ask Johnson if only the prime minister had the guts to be interviewed. Now that would be worth Neil’s time. Over in Downing Street, Boris quietly projectile vomited. It was the first honest thing he had done in weeks.
John Crace’s new book, Decline and Fail: Read in Case of Political Apocalypse, is published by Guardian Faber. To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min. p&p of £1.99.