There was a storm of outrage this week when Nigel Farage, the Brexit party leader, was reported to have been offered a peerage just two days before he withdrew candidates in 317 Conservative-held seats for the December 12 election. A shameless bribe, people fulminated on Twitter: a stitch-up, a cosy deal with the Tories to shut out Jeremy Corbyn and condemn Britain to no-deal oblivion. Farage insisted that his decision was entirely unconnected with the offer of a seat in the Lords, and in any case, he’d turned it down. Which sparked fresh uproar, because if Nigel Farage denies something, you can bet your last euro it’s probably true.
How did we know Farage had been offered a peerage, incidentally? Well, because it was reported in several newspapers, which all relied on a single source: Nigel Farage. According to the Mirror, Farage explained how the gong had been dangled in front of his nose, then immediately denounced the idea as ‘ridiculous – they thought they can buy me, a high-paid job; but I’m not interested, I don’t want to know.’ A scoop and a rebuttal in the space of two sentences: almost the definition of a story that’s too good to check.
In recent years Farage has spent a startling amount of time shaking off rumours he’s about to be parachuted into the Upper House. On November 3 he told the Sunday Times he had declined two offers of a title in recent months, among ‘all sorts of baubles’, if his party only fought a few seats in the election. ‘That came from two very close sources — one from an adviser and one a minister, not a member of the cabinet, suggesting this was the right thing to do,’ he said before adding his standard selfless tagline: ‘I said I was not interested.’
How recent the offer was wasn’t specified, but perhaps it was before October 19, when Farage disclosed to the Daily Mail that he had been approached by a ‘middle man’ to measure him up for an ermine robe. Once again he emphasised his total lack of interest in a seat in the Lords: ‘Nope, wouldn’t want one at all. I would not want a peerage – if something else came along I might accept it.’
It certainly can’t have been as long ago as November 2016, when speculation was flying round that Theresa May had held talks about arranging a seat in the Lords for Farage in the wake of the referendum. On November 15 May was pressed on the matter at Question Time by the SNP MP George Kerevan, who asked her to ‘confirm or deny’ whisperings he had heard about Farage’s imminent ennoblement. (It is not recorded where these whisperings emanated from, but perhaps, dear reader, you may be able to hazard a guess). May would only reply coyly that ‘such matters are normally never discussed in public’. Nigel was characteristically firm in his refusal when the issue came up on Radio 4’s Any Questions: ‘A, it’s not going to happen and B, it’s not what I want in my life at this moment in time. When I’m old, you know, I might think about it.’ On December 25 that year he brought Christmas cheer to TalkRadio listeners by reassuring them he would reject a peerage if he was ever offered one.
Then again, even before the referendum veteran political journalist Michael Crick was declaring on Twitter that a ‘Farage friend’ had told him the UKIP leader had been offered a peerage and a place in a future Boris Johnson-led government (remember, David Cameron was still prime minister at this point). Whether or not Farage turned down this prophetic offer is not recorded.
What do these stories have in common? All of them claim Nigel Farage was being lined up for a peerage; nearly every one contains an emphatic rejection from Farage himself; they typically include details or insinuations of a shady deal with the upper ranks of government; and for the most part they rely on a single source – Nigel Farage, or his ‘friends’ (a standard journalistic cover for off-the-record statements). Increasingly their appearance has coincided with key moments in referendums and election campaigns. And the brilliant thing is that because honours and peerages are in the gift of the Queen, all discussions about them are state secrets, making the stories completely undeniable. All the government can do is issue guarded rebuttals about ‘gossip’ and ‘speculation’, which, of course, only lend credence to the rumour.
All of this reflects the way Farage’s political stage show has become so honed over 20 years that the scale of manipulation is almost impossible to grasp. The ‘rejected peerage’ stories strengthen several narrative threads at once: they cast Farage as the intrepid man of the people, fending off the devious Westminster establishment; they depict him as a selfless politician who is immune to the lure of easy riches; they paint the government and political institutions as corrupt and amoral; and they imply that the entire electoral process is rotten to the core. If you’ve ever been outraged at a story about Nigel Farage being offered a peerage, you’ve been an unwitting piece in his game – not so much a pawn as a tooth on the blade of the ‘saw the country in two’ trick.
So, are all the claims about Farage dismissing a peerage just what a ‘friend’ might call an inverted pyramid of piffle? Perhaps not. One of the more credible reports appeared in the Telegraph in February 2017, based on leaked internal emails, which said that two current UKIP peers, Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Lord Willoughby de Broke, tried to recruit Farage to their ranks shortly after the referendum. On that occasion, according to the Telegraph, the scheme collapsed because Farage would have had to give up his seat as an MEP. How ironic if the gurning face of the Leave campaign, given a gold-plated opportunity to get out of Europe and sit with his countrymen in the British Parliament, turned out to prefer the remote charms and lavish subsidies of Strasbourg.