Photo: The Guardian
Last Friday morning, there had been bacon rolls, an enormous pile of them – Nigel Farage’s press officer gestured with his hand to show just how enormous – ready for the journalists who would assemble to watch the Ukip leader watch David Cameron’s long-trailed speech on Europe.The prime minister, preoccupied with the hostage crisis in Algeria, was forced to postpone the speech, but not in time for Ukip to cancel breakfast at the European parliament’s HQ in London, where Farage has an office. “It was awful,” said the aide. “I had to hand them out around the commission building.”
After months of postponements and procrastinations from No 10 on the timing of the speech, Farage’s office weren’t about to be burned again. And so there was no hospitable snack for the reporters and camera crews who gathered before daybreak on Wednesday, poised to capture every sceptical twitch of the Ukip leader’s eyebrow as he followed the prime minister’s speech on TV.
Not that any enticements were needed. Into a small office at the Smith Square HQ – fittingly, the former offices of the Conservative party – were crammed, among others, two British TV news crews, two from Denmark, one from Norway and one from France. Dutch TV had pulled out only at the last minute. Was Farage such big news in mainland Europe? “Well, he’s the story of the day, isn’t he?” said the woman from Danish TV. “Where else would you want to be today?” They do like their political drama in Denmark.
Farage has been an MEP since 1999, but a certain ambivalence over his position, given his enthusiastic advocacy of Britain’s withdrawal, remains. “Piss off! Piss right off!” bellowed the press aide when reporters found a small EU flag in the room and proposed setting it next to Farage’s seat.
The flag was speedily removed from the room.
It was, by any measure, quite a day for Farage, who blustered into the room a few minutes before 8am, straight into a wall of Scandinavian cameras.
He told reporters about when he was first elected and was told that Ukip was “some sort of mad, weird little fringe. And here we are today with the prime minister, disingenuously perhaps, but at least discussing the exit door! I think that’s a tremendous achievement for us.”
Well, yes: either that or Ukip was suddenly irrelevant as its core promise – that it was the only party offering British people the opportunity to seize back powers from Brussels – was obsolete. Nonsense, Farage said: now absolutely everybody else – the three main parties, “all the grandees, with their knighthoods” – were pro-Europe. Ukip was the only party still arguing for immediate withdrawal, on any terms.
“Here we go!” he boomed, pulling up a chair, in front of a pile of radio mics. “Gosh, it’s going to be very tough not to swear, isn’t it?”
Whatever his other talents, if you must spend 45 minutes watching a politician watch another politician read from a text that is already widely known, Farage is probably the politician you would want to be watching. The 48-year-old is blessed with a faintly camp exuberance which he was happy to deploy to its full while Cameron delivered his arguments.
The prime minister recalled how peace came about in Europe after the second world war “because of determined work over generations”. “Ah! So nothing to do with Nato then, Dave! Hah!” Britain had the character of an island nation, said Cameron, forthright in defence of our sovereignty. “No we’re not! No we’re not!” Then, to the cameras: “This is the standup bit!”
“We should plan for the future … once the difficulties in the eurozone have been overcome,” said the prime minister. “Hah! Well you’ve got a long wait, to be honest!”
There were chesty smoker’s giggles, pantomimic eye rolls and, occasionally, a slow, sorrowful shake of the head, such as when Cameron advocated a “leaner, less bureaucratic union”. Cameron mentioned Switzerland.
“We wouldn’t want to be like the Swiss, would we? That would be awful! We’d be rich!
“Well, there we are,” Farage said as Cameron drew to a close, bouncing to his feet.
His verdict? What would it mean for other member states that weren’t in the eurozone, say, to pluck one at random, Denmark? Well, the main reason Europe was unlikely to give back powers to Britain was that most of the 10 others in the same position would want them back, too, said Farage. “I really do not believe that the central tenets of the EU are up for grabs.”
With that he was off, for an interview with BBC news, followed by Sky News, BBC Radio Suffolk, German TV, Euronews, Channel 5, BBC Radio 4’s The World at One and al-Jazeera, all before lunch.
Cameron may have gambled that by claiming back the Eurosceptic ground he can consign Ukip to irrelevance, but, for one day at least, Farage was quite happy to be at the centre of Europe.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk