Andrew Neil is the Liverpool FC of British journalism – he never loses a match. Boris Johnson’s so scared of him that he won’t even turn up to the studio, despite Neil’s “martini” offer – to meet the prime minister anytime, any place, anywhere.
Any excuse will do for Johnson: “The coach broke down”, “Dilyn ate my homework”, “I’ve got an IT lesson in Shoreditch that day”.
Nicola Sturgeon, Jo Swinson and Jeremy Corbyn all have found their defences ground down and down during the course of a half-hour interview with Neil. Johnson’s defensive line is not terribly strong at the best of times, often improvised (painting buses on wine crates) and tired-out bluffs (“Corbyn-Sturgeon coalition”).
So Neil had to make do, for now, with Nigel Farage. He must have felt like it was the rough equivalent of hosting Kooks United at Anfield.
And it was, mostly. Farage, Mr Brexit himself, has only, as Neil bluntly told him, a “walk-on” part in the so-called Brexit election. Four of Farage’s own Brexit MEPs have abandoned ship and urged their supporters to vote for Boris Johnson anyway. The well-known Italian striker Annunziata Rees-Mogg has urged people to back Jacob, which may be simply a ploy to discover the whereabouts of her reclusive brother.
Half of Farage’s team have been sent home anyway. Under some intense pressure, they have “voluntarily” stood down in 317 seats now held by Tories. Farage is polling so low he is, at best, only a marginal influence. The game’s up.
So Neil did his usual thing and tried to take the mickey – a “set piece” interviewer technique for the smaller parties. You just tell them no one loves them, and invite them to tell you that they don’t care.
That didn’t quite work, as it happens. Farage’s counter-attack was swift and effective. When he was reminded that any party he leads eventually succumbs to fruitcake syndrome – splitting and dissolving acrimony and mutual recrimination – Farage was straight down his right wing: “Well I’ll tell you what any party I lead does do: it shifts the centre of gravity in British politics in a very dramatic way.”
GOAL! I’m sorry, but it’s true. Even his enemies admit as much. Especially his enemies, who despise him for directing and energising the movement to get Britain out of the EU for about 20 years, more than any other individual – David Cameron, Boris Johnson or Dominic Cummings. Brexit is Farage’s trophy: an impressive piece of silverware. And if Farage really was the marginalised, minor character of Neil’s caricature – “writing yourself out of the script”, as Neil puts it – then he would not be so widely reviled as he is.
Later on we were, of course, reminded why Farage does not play the beautiful game of politics beautifully.
If a skilled eye surgeon from Italy, say, (my example) wants to come and work in the NHS – or, rather the NHS is begging her to come and help – then, in the Farage world, she’d only be able to stick around for a year or two under a work permit, and she’d have to leave her spouse and children behind – because of the terrible burden they’d impose on British public services. The irony is, as ever, lost on Farage. Imagine a Premier League football manger trying to run a club like that. Maybe that’s the way it will be under Brexit.
Both men got what they wanted out of the encounter. Farage made his bar-room bloke points about the M25 and the doctors’ surgeries clogged up with migrants. What Farage calls “quality of life” is just dog-whistle xenophobia, of course, and he got it out there. On American imports of chlorinated chickens, that totem of a US trade deal, Farage claimed it was all OK because they would be labelled (except that the US trade representatives report 2018, their negotiators’ bible, object to country of origin labelling and other “unfair” labelling. But not a lot of people know that, including Andrew Neil).
Neil, once again, demonstrated his effortless ability to make a politician look shifty. He managed to do it to Johnson, too, even though Johnson was otherwise engaged.
Having said goodnight (in all senses) to Nigel Farage, Neil patiently explained to his viewers that while all the others had agreed to an interview, in time-honoured tradition, Johnson has still refused (though ironically, as if to prove the point, Johnson gave a commitment to do so on the Andrew Marr Show on Sunday).
Neil slowly and carefully, like a superb build-up to a Sadio Mané goal, went through all the fair and obvious questions waiting for Johnson – an “oven-ready” agenda for discussion. Trust was to be the appropriate theme.
Without Johnson present, without an empty chair, without an ice sculpture, but just in a short, compelling authoritative soliloquy to camera, Neil destroyed the old fraud sat in No 10. I counted 10 questions, from police numbers to social care, that Neil said he would put to Johnson if he ever fancied a game.
So, although Neil was only 3-1 up against Farage by the final whistle, he’d demolished Johnson 10-0. Quite the reckoning.