Stood in line at the taxi stand in Strasbourg in late October, Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib spotted a fellow British EU parliamentarian and suggested they share a car to the European Parliament building. He says his offer was firmly — and not altogether politely — rebuffed.
“She said: ‘I’m not sharing a taxi with you’, Habib said, “It was staggering.”
Given their vocal opposition to the European project, perhaps it is not so staggering that Brexit Party MEPs get a frosty reception in the dual capitals of European power.
From the seats at the back of the chamber — where they sit alongside Greece’s Golden Dawn, France’s National Rally and Italy’s La Liga — the Brexit Party’s 29 MEPs shout and jeer and turn their backs on the European anthem.
Their leader, Nigel Farage, refers to the European parliament as a “thugocracy” and once told former EU president Herman van Rompuy that he had the charisma of a damp towel.
“It isn’t how we operate,” Irina Von Wiese, a Liberal Democrat MEP, told Euronews. “We’re a little bit more civilised than in Westminster.”
Von Wiese has shared taxis from the train station with Brexit Party MEPs, and says that there are some with which it is possible to "have a cordial chat". That said, she has never seen any Brexit Party MEPs in committees, where the “real work” of parliament gets done.
“They show up together, they leave together — like a regiment,” she said.
At the head of that regiment, as always, is Farage, the leader of the Brexit Party and its most recognisable figure by a county mile. Farage has served as an MEP since 1999, representing UKIP until his resignation from the party in December 2018.
Farage is also the owner of the party, which is unique in being registered as a private company, with Farage and Richard Tice, another Brexit Party MEP, listed as directors in its filing at UK Companies House. Farage also has the authority to appoint or remove board members.
It is in this organisational structure that the Brexit Party differs from UKIP, Farage’s previous party, which descended into factional infighting and ultimately farce after the 2016 referendum.
It then appointed Tommy Robinson — a far-right anti-Muslim activist whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — as an advisor to UKIP leader Gerard Batten.
“UKIP was — at least to some extent — internally democratic: members had rights and representation, which was why Farage always had a love/hate relationship with it,” said Tim Bale, professor of politics at the Queen Mary University of London.
“The Brexit Party has no members, only supporters. It's a company as much as a party - and that's how Farage likes it.”
Brexit Party claims to have 115,000 signed-up supporters — each paying £25 for the privilege — and undoubtedly has significant support amongst UK voters. In July, the party swept the board at Britain’s elections for the European parliament, winning 29 seats.
On November 1, days after the House of Commons agreed that an election would be held on December 12, Farage, Tice and Ann Widdecombe, the former Conservative MP that now serves as a Brexit Party MEP, launched its campaign at an event in central London.
Farage repeated his offer to Boris Johnson for an electoral pact with the Conservatives, which was quickly dismissed by the party. Asked how many seats the Brexit Party planned to contest, he said that there were 150 that the Conservatives “had never won” and in which his party could do better. Nominations for next month’s elections end on November 14.
But despite polling more than 13% nationally, because of the first-past-the-post system of government in the UK, which favours Britain’s two main parties, the Brexit Party would be unlikely to secure many — if any — seats in parliament.
Habib, a former Conservative donor who has been a Tory voter since 1983, told Euronews prior to the UK parliament voting in favour of a December 12 election that the Brexit Party would field candidates throughout the UK in a general election.
“We will still stand against the Tories because we don’t think [the deal] is any good, and we want to be certain that the free trade agreement doesn’t take us back into the EU by the backdoor,” he says. “We need to keep them honest.”
‘Brexit In Name Only’
If the Brexit Party does have an agenda other than the EU, says Bale, it is a classic right-wing populist mix of increased spending on healthcare and pensions coupled with rhetoric against the political class and hostility to immigration and political correctness.
Tice, speaking November 1, seemed to confirm that, outlining a mix of local vote winners — such as opposition to the HS2 high-speed rail project and support for the fisheries industry — to general policies such as free wifi on public transport and slashing business rates.
Farage has previously called for the UK to adopt proportional representation, known as PR, which provides for parties to gain seats in parliament according to the number of votes they receive. Britain’s first-past-the-post (FPTP) system favours incumbent parties, meaning that while UKIP, for example, won 3.8 million votes in 2015 - they attained just one parliamentary seat.
But while the Greens, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party all favour PR over ‘FPTP’, many look at the chaotic and unstable coalition governments of countries like Italy and Spain — which both have PR — as evidence to the contrary. Even within Farage’s own party, PR has its opponents: Habib among them. “I’m not in favour of it,” he tells Euronews.
Even if the Brexit Party is kept out of the British parliament, its MEPs will continue to sit in the European parliament until the UK actually leaves the EU, likely to be January 31, 2020. For services rendered, they receive a salary of €6,824,85-a-month after tax (plus €4,500 expenses).
If Britain leaves the UK later than July 2020, the new intake will be entitled to six months salary as a “transitional bonus” - to ease their transition back into normal life.
Outside of parliament, Brexit Party MEPs are not exactly hard up, with Transparency International recently revealing that they collectively declared outside earnings of between €2m and €4.5m per year. The highest earner in the EU parliament was none other than Habib, who makes around €960,000 per year as an executive at First Property Group.
'Taxi for the Brexit Party'
Habib’s tweet on the taxi incident in Strasbourg got 1,000 likes and 250 retweets and led to a series of very hostile comments about the British MEP involved, Julie Ward.
For her part, Ward has a very different memory of the affair in Strasbourg. Her spokesperson said Ward’s pre-booked parliamentary vehicle was at the back of a line of cars and, when approached by Habib, she simply pointed him to a car at the front of the queue.
She was aware not only that the car had space, but - perhaps as an unintentional metaphor - it was leaving sooner.