How Boris Johnson Outplayed Nigel Farage on Brexit. And Then Everything Else.

And what that means for the future of populism in the U.K.

Over the past year, as the U.K. left the EU and finalized a trade deal with the bloc, one man has kept a surprisingly low profile: Mr. Brexit himself, Nigel Farage. 

Farage is the former leader of the UK Independence Party, a party that—despite only ever winning a single seat in a British Parliament election—is widely credited with being instrumental in taking the U.K. out of the EU.

Farage stepped down as leader of UKIP after the Brexit referendum in 2016. He later left the party, and in 2019, as Prime Minister Theresa May began to waver on the Brexit issue, he went on to found the Brexit Party, hoping to repeat his success with UKIP. In 2013, the upstart UKIP had been polling at 10 percent nationally, prompting a promise from David Cameron to hold a referendum on EU membership on the hopes it would bring its voters back into the fold. This time around, Farage’s plan was for the Brexit Party to force the Tory government to actually go through with leaving the European Union and not succumb to demands to hold a second referendum, or agree to a watered-down Brexit in name only.

In the 2019 elections to determine who would fill the U.K.’s 73 seats in the European Parliament, the last the U.K. would participate in before leaving the EU, the four-month old Brexit Party became the biggest party in the U.K. The Conservative Party was pushed down to fifth place with a single-digit showing. Theresa May, whose standing in the party had become progressively weaker since her disastrous decision to call a snap election in 2017, resigned the next day. 

Boris Johnson, who unlike May had been one of the main advocates of the Leave campaign in 2016, would go on to replace her. On the surface, that might seem like a victory for Nigel Farage. But while Johnson and Farage are both Leavers, they are certainly not friends. The official Vote Leave campaign that Johnson was part of made the decision early on to distance itself from Nigel Farage and UKIP. The political strategy behind this was sound: UKIP sympathizers would vote Leave even if Farage were locked in a closet for the duration of the campaign, but undecided voters would be more likely to vote Leave if divisive, polarizing figures like Farage were kept away from the limelight. Farage was outraged, referring to the Leave campaign leaders as cretins and stating that “It’s crackers to think that you can win a referendum campaign with Boris and the likes of the Cabinet.”

With Johnson as leader, the Tories quickly recaptured most of the voters they had lost to the Brexit Party. Johnson negotiated a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU in October 2019, which guaranteed that the U.K would not crash out of the EU as many had feared, but that there would instead be an orderly transition. Farage found himself backed into a corner: He strongly opposed the WA, but Johnson had surprised him and everyone else by reaching the agreement at all. Before Farage had had time to react, Johnson had his entire government, and especially the more Euroskeptic members, blanketing the media airwaves to promote the virtues of it. Polls soon showed that a crushing majority of Leave voters supported the agreement, with only 10 percent of Leavers agreeing with Farage. In the subsequent snap election, Farage and the Brexit party stood down in every constituency held by the Conservative Party, under pressure not to split the Leave vote. He did this despite not securing a single concession from the Johnson administration. Farage had simply been outplayed.

One may of course argue that, despite this setback, Farage did achieve his lifelong goal of taking the U.K. out of the EU, and that his new party, like UKIP before it, forced the Tories to commit to a harder Brexit than what Theresa May originally had sought. There is certainly some truth to that. 

Still, Farage has made it very clear that his political ambitions extend beyond Brexit, and that he wants to replicate his success in other political areas. He even gave the Brexit Party a new name: Reform UK. So far, though, the party has failed to make any kind of mark. While UKIP peaked at 12.6 percent of the vote in the 2015 general election, and the Brexit Party averaged about 20 percent in the opinion polls in the summer of 2019, Reform UK is sitting at somewhere between 0 percent and 3 percent.

One big reason is that Farage misjudged his fellow Brits’ response to the pandemic. He assumed that, like in America, British conservatives would oppose lockdowns, and he has made himself the face of the anti-lockdown movement in the U.K. However, despite living under some of the longest and most severe lockdowns in the world, the vast majority of British people of all political persuasions support them. The most recent national lockdown—closing schools and non-essential business and severely limiting interactions between people actually enjoys the support of 87 percent of conservatives. Johnson and his Cabinet outplayed Farage once again, this time by adopting populist language to support the lockdowns and restrictions, appealing to the “Blitz spirit,” invoking the memory of the country’s darkest hour during World War II when bombs rained down on London.

Johnson has used a similar strategy to silence any opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine. The U.K. vaccine rollout has been a startling success, with more than 30 percent of U.K. citizens having received their first dose compared with about 5 percent of the EU. 

The message the government has channeled is subtle yet clear: We are beating the EU, we are showing the superiority of the mighty Britannia over the Brussels bureaucracy, and those who refuse to take the vaccine are betraying the national cause of poking a finger in Angela Merkel’s eye. It doesn’t hurt that Boris Johnson is a politician who is difficult to label as ‘establishment’ or ‘status quo’: His hair always looks like he just got out of bed, he once got stuck and had to be rescued while riding a zipline in central London and waving one union jack flag with each hand, and during his last election campaign he shot a Love, Actually-themed campaign ad featuring himself. His old-fashioned rhetoric and staunch defense of the British empire have also endeared him to the anti-PC brigade.

While not everyone agrees that Brexit is the reason why the U.K. rollout has been so successful, framing it that way certainly helps persuade Brexit supporters—who by and large belong to the demographic groups most likely to be vaccine skeptics—to get the jab. Less than 1 percent of people older than 70 who have been offered the vaccine have declined to take it. Of this group, 61 percent to voted Leave in the 2016 referendum.

Now, Nigel Farage is not an antivaxxer. Again, however, he misjudged the situation: In the earliest days of the vaccine rollout, Farage gambled that the government would make a mess out of it. He went so far as to propose that the government appoint Tony Blair—Britain’s former PM and possibly most fanatic EU supporter—to be in charge of vaccine distribution, arguing that at least Blair was competent, unlike the people, he said, who make up Boris Johnson’s cabinet. Needless to say, this did not age well.

What Johnson and his party seems to have figured out is that, at least for the most part, populism is not about policy, but about feelings. Most of the “populist” voters have little interest in the details of policy. They feel anger towards the status quo, and they want politicians who validate those feelings. The specific policies enacted are less important; it is the framing of policies that makes populists channel their anger through support of them.

Thus, if you can make them feel that they are giving the middle finger to Brussels when they take the Covid-19 vaccine, they will take it. If you frame new trade deals as a way to cut the British economy loose from the EU and rebuild its historical ties to the Commonwealth, they will cheer those trade deals even if they involve the kind of low-wage, developing countries that populists normally accuse of “stealing our jobs.” If you make them feel that, by hunkering down in their homes to stop the spread of Covid-19, they are following in the footsteps of their patriotic great-grandparents who hunkered down in subway stations during the Blitz bombings, they will do it.

Because of this, Johnson is able to talk openly about his vision for a “Global Britain”, propose a plan for a “Green industrial revolution,” and even invite millions of political refugees from Hong Kong to come to the U.K.

What about Brexit? Contrary to popular belief, Brexit was not a “concession” to populists. Boris Johnson was actually one of the very first conservatives to support leaving the EU way back in the late 1980s when he worked as a Brussels correspondent for the Telegraph. His writings would actually go on to inspire Margaret Thatcher herself, who was a regular reader and big fan of the young Johnson. Thatcher was subsequently pushed out by her own party, largely due to her new skeptical view of the EU. Whatever one thinks of Johnson and his Cabinet’s support for Brexit, it is not a concession to Nigel Farage, but a genuine belief held for decades.

None of this is to suggest that Boris Johnson is politically invulnerable, and in fact, had it not been for the last-minute trade deal with the EU, his premiership would have been in serious jeopardy. However, unlike his predecessors who have had to fight a two-front war against the left on one hand and right-wing populists on the other, Boris Johnson has the luxury of focusing solely on the former, having effectively reunited the British right in support of his own party. 

Is there any way back for Nigel Farage? Potentially, yes. Most recently, Farage has been pushing hard against China and Chinese influence in British schools and universities. He’s picking fights on Twitter with Chinese state media actors. Boris Johnson, on the other hand, has been notably softer on the Chinese regime, recently signaling that he wishes to resume trade talks despite the ongoing Uighur genocide and repression of Hong Kong. Instead of economic boycotts, the government has instead invited Hong Kongers to immigrate to the U.K. This “pragmatic” strategy has not been well received among all conservatives, many of whom opposed the handover of Hong Kong in the first place and who hate to see their country once again apparently kowtowing to Beijing. It is doubtful however whether British conservatives feel strongly enough about the topic to actually switch their support to Farage's Reform UK, especially as there is, to be frank, very little the U.K. can realistically do to make China change course. That won’t stop Farage from trying, and with the coming launch of GB News, the U.K’s first conservative broadcaster, he will have a forum to express his views in the future as well. For now, however, Nigel Farage appears more and more to be a rebel without a clear cause, throwing out multiple feelers and briefly getting involved in several political issues, only to drop them quickly when something else comes along.

Only time will ultimately tell whether or not Farage can stage a comeback. But as Britain enters the next chapter of its history as a country independent from the EU, the tide does appear to have turned decisively against populism, with Farage finally having faced a prime minister who can be called a worthy opponent. The man who once became the symbol of populism in Europe may now see himself and his party become a symbol of its decline.

John Gustavsson is a conservative writer from Sweden and a doctoral student in economics.