I can imagine senior members of Vote Leave gathered around a conference table several months back. The topic of discussion: Nigel Farage.
“If we can keep him contained, we can win,” one of them says.
“Impossible,” another retorts.
“Not impossible, just extremely difficult.”
“This is his life’s obsession. You think he’s going to keep quiet though until June 23rd about this?”
“Imagine if we could contain him.”
“Then we’ve got a shot.”
“We can do this.”
“We can do this.”
Last night, at a panel event on EU membership hosted by the Mirror, that dream finally died. Farage was on the Leave side alongside Andrea Leadsom and novelist Dreda Say Mitchell. Dreda is interesting in this debate as she is the daughter of Grenadian parents and is not in the Leave camp because of immigration at all, but rather because she feels the EU is undemocratic. Given she reaches a vital demographic for Leave as well as offering a fresh argument, you’d think keeping her on side would have been a vital plan for last night.
But Farage had other ideas, as per usual. At one point, he attacked Peter Mandelson for what he described as New Labour’s supposed policy of deliberately increasing immigration to change the ethnic mix of the UK. The killer sentence Nigel used was this: “You wanted to rub our noses in diversity didn’t you, Lord Mandelson?” Predictably, Dreda was rather offended by this turn of phrase and turned on her own side, asking Farage what exactly he meant by this statement. Farage equivocated and kept trying to turn it all back on Mandelson, but it didn’t work. Once Farage and Mandelson finally stopped arguing with each other, Dreda had this to say to Nigel:
“This has been the problem with people who are from ethnic minority groups standing up and saying they do want to vote Leave. Because like me it is something to do with democracy and has nothing to do with migration. The reason they will not stand up is that they do not want themselves linked to this type of intolerant rhetoric. How you could say what you said next to a black woman, I don’t really know.”
This gets to the heart of the problem with Leave’s argument on immigration. While it is a core concern to their activists, it is alienating for lots of other people, some of them potential Leave voters. Having said that, there are ways to talk about this in non-Farage type ways that have some subtlety built into them, and Nigel came with his usual sledgehammer approach last night. He will do so again next time round because he’s still stuck in 2014 Euro campaigning mode in which this stuff worked for a significantly large enough minority group within the British (mostly English) population for UKIP to come first. He hasn’t worked out yet that you need 50% of people to vote for you in a referendum and by the evidence of last night he isn’t going to before June 23rd.
One of the big challenges facing Vote Leave was always going to be breaking the link between Brexit and xenophobia; trying to make people think about leaving Europe as a positive step as opposed to a retrograde one. Every time Nigel Farage opens his mouth from here to June 23rd, he takes them two steps backwards in this effort.