By William James
SOUTHAMPTON, England (Reuters) – Nigel Farage demanded a seat at Brexit negotiations on Monday after his new party swept to victory in the United Kingdom’s European Parliament election, warning that he would turn British politics upside down if denied.
Farage, a bombastic 55-year-old commodities broker-turned anti-establishment supremo, won by riding a wave of anger at the failure of Prime Minister Theresa May to take the United Kingdom out of the European Union.
As May’s Conservative Party prepares to pick a new leader, Farage had a warning for the next prime minister: A say in the United Kingdom’s biggest decision since World War Two.
“We should be part of the team now, that’s pretty clear,” Brexit Party leader Farage told Reuters at an election count in the southern English city of Southampton.
After repeated delays to Brexit, Farage said the United Kingdom had to leave the EU on Oct. 31, the current deadline for Britain’s parliament to agree an exit deal. Farage would prefer to leave without a deal.
“If we don’t leave on that day, then you can expect the Brexit Party to repeat this kind of surprise in the next general election,” he said.
While no British leader would allow Farage near EU divorce talks, his proven ability to poach Brexit supporters from both the Conservative and Labour parties will stiffen a belief among leading Conservatives vying to replace May that they must go for a more decisive split from the EU.
Farage, often pictured with a glass of beer and an elastic grin, is one of Britain’s most recognizable politicians with a rare capacity to polarize opinion. He once posed with Donald Trump in a gilded lift, enraging the British establishment.
His flair for capturing the anger and disillusionment of Britain’s working classes regularly brought crowds out to hear him speak during an energetic campaign focused on deprived post-industrial areas of the country where voters feel left behind.
Critics accuse him of stoking anger over issues like immigration, and offering popular but simplistic solutions to complex problems like Brexit. One voter expressed his anger by showering Farage in a milkshake during a campaign appearance.
Despite spending two decades as an elected member of the European Parliament and making seven unsuccessful attempts to win a seat in the British parliament, he casts himself as an outsider shouting truth at a shambolic political elite.
“There’s a huge message here, the Labour and Conservative parties can learn a massive lesson tonight, though I don’t suppose they actually will,” he said.
Farage has been here before.
As leader of the Eurosceptic United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), he put so much pressure on the Conservatives that in 2013 then prime minister David Cameron promised a referendum.
Then, in 2014, he humiliated the Conservatives at European parliament elections. Farage went on to play a leading role in the successful 2016 referendum campaign, but then stepped away from frontline British politics.
However, after severing ties with UKIP, he has returned with a new party and a familiar mission. Accusing the establishment of betraying voters, he is promising to ensure Brexit happens.
“Never before in British politics has a new party, launched six weeks ago, topped the polls in a national election,” he said.
As dramatic as the Brexit Party’s rise is, the election result will not give Farage a clear route to bring about his preferred outcome of leaving the EU without a deal.
Members of the European Parliament cannot directly influence British policymaking, and it will be May’s successor who decides the country’s fate.
None of the candidates seeking to replace May are expected to offer an olive branch to Farage, a longstanding rival who has the potential to split the right-wing vote in Britain.
Unlike in 2014, when the Conservatives were only 12 months away from a national election, this time Britain is not due to hold one until 2022 – unless the government collapses under the strain of delivering Brexit.
Nevertheless, Farage said he was determined to build quickly on his latest success: he wants the Brexit Party to have a full complement of 650 candidates ready in case a general election is called sooner than expected.
He outlined plans for a sweeping electoral reform to replace a first-past-the-post system that favors large, established parties. The first stepping stone is an interim election held in a largely pro-Brexit area of eastern England on June 6.
If a Brexit Party candidate is able to overtake the two main parties there, it would give Farage a voice inside Westminster, where a single vote could be pivotal in deciding the country’s Brexit strategy.
“The two-party system in England that has dominated things so much for the last 100 years is for the first time in real trouble,” Farage said.
(Writing by William James; editing by Guy Faulconbridge)