Listening to UKIP staking their claim as a major political force, I suggest to Nigel Farage, can feel a bit like driving up the A6 with a 10-year-old tugging at your sleeve and mithering to drive the car. What if you gave in and put them behind the wheel? Where would such a gamble leave you? In a cell in Strangeways Prison? Carlisle? Or crawling from the wreckage, having entered some stranger's driveway and crashed through the doors of their...
"By the way," I ask the UKIP leader, "how do you pronounce that place where you park your car?"
"Gárage," he replies. "Although you, as a Northerner, might call it a garridge."
"If I was from Richmond or Wilmslow, it could be a garáarge."
"Pronounce my name however you like," the politician says. "I say Fárage." (Rhymes with barrage.)
He bears this exchange, as he does most things, with surprisingly good humour, especially considering that, as I will later discover on YouTube, it's not the first time the garage analogy has arisen (he once raised it himself, on Newsnight). Added to which, Nigel Farage is no stranger to vehicular misfortune, both terrestrial (he was almost killed as a young man when he walked in front of a car, drunk, in Orpington) and airborne (in 2010, while attempting a "fly-past" in a light aircraft, his UKIP banner became entangled in the tail-fin; the plane nose-dived from 35ft, breaking the politician's sternum). Nautical catastrophe has so far eluded him, but he's still only 47 and a keen sea-angler.
In a determined and life-long battle to maintain temperance and moderation, Farage has suffered the occasional reverse. He spent a night with a 25-year-old Latvian woman called Liga who met him in a pub in Biggin Hill, Kent, in 2006; she told the News of the World – falsely, says Farage – that they made love seven times and that she performed "sex acts with ice cubes" after which the MEP was left "snoring like a horse". This error of judgement, allied to reports of his having patronised lap-dancing clubs in Mayfair and Strasbourg, have led to him being portrayed by some as an innocuous buffoon. It's a perception that is not shared by most serious political commentators.
"I am not a mass murderer," Farage says. "I am not a criminal. I am a human being. I am flawed as much as the next man. I try not to hide that stuff. I am not going to stop going to the pub. I mean, why should I? Why should I? Why should I?"
The UKIP leader has great energy – one aspect of his constitution that Liga may inadvertently have put her finger on – an unusual ability to think on his feet, and an enviable fearlessness in debate, as demonstrated in the ever-popular YouTube clip of his February 2010 rant against Herman Van Rompuy, the Belgian president of the European Commission. The footage, which has attracted more than a million hits, shows Farage declaring: "You have the charisma of a damp rag. Who are you?"
His name – though less exotic than that of his father, Guy Justus Oscar Farage – is of the kind that, in an historical novel, would signal raffish exuberance verging on swagger; an area in which the real Farage does not disappoint.
We meet at UKIP's London headquarters; two modest rooms in the former Conservative headquarters near Westminster. The politician, usually caricatured in a blazer, arrives in a conventional suit and tie. Even in this outfit, there is something in his manner that might lead you, were you to meet him in a rural setting, to stare beyond him, over his shoulder, in search of his caddy. He is welcoming, convivial, and scorns the homogenised appearance perfected by Cameron and Clegg: a look that you might call SBW: Smart Boy Wanted. A nostalgic Thatcherite who nurtures political sympathies highly unappealing to some, he is still able to laugh easily and generously, even at himself, a trait I've not previously encountered in a politician.
Nigel Farage prides himself on his ability to "read" people, and I can tell from the start that he's sensed our world views may not overlap in absolutely every area of life. But whatever your political prejudices, you have to concede that, where Europe is concerned, this is his moment. Even 15 months ago, appearing on BBC1's Question Time, he was visibly unsettling fellow guests including Kenneth Clarke, who observed that, "If the Greeks had not been in the euro, I don't know where they would be now; they would be [sic] very very belly-up."
"Countries like Greece," Farage told him, "are trapped. The euro is doomed. Thank God we didn't join it."
With the three major parties haemorrhaging activists, and the EU federalist dream in danger of imminent meltdown, the question for UKIP has to be: if not now, when? It's easy to forget that, historically, opposition to the European Parliament, on the grounds of its lack of democracy and thrift, and its permanent struggle to sign off its own accounts, has been articulated by politicians from all parties, notably Tony Benn. Which makes it such a shame for UKIP that the party still struggles to shed the detested sobriquet: "The BNP in blazers." "What you need," I tell Farage, "is to draw from a broader political base. You look like a golf crowd. That alienates people. Even now, I'm seeing you in a blazer."
"Well, I was a keen golfer. Part of 'the golf-club set'," adds Farage, whose idea of populist idiom sometimes sounds as if he's consulted a slang dictionary from 1958. "So of course I had a bloody blazer. I have a blazer. I have several. What you're saying is that there's an impression that UKIP is not with it."
"'With it?' That's a phrase I haven't heard since..."
"And that UKIP is a bit 1950s, in its image."
"And very Home Counties."
"That was how UKIP started, in the early 1990s. You could tell it was a UKIP meeting by the number of Bomber Command ties in the room. These were wonderful people – we shouldn't mock them too much – but they fitted an image that couldn't be further from the truth now."
His deputy, Paul Nuttall, he points out, was "born and bred in Bootle docks".
"Maybe, but you wouldn't want to take your striped ties up to Liverpool 20. Actually, you could go on a charity walk there; we could sponsor you not by the mile, but by the minute."
"I'm not suggesting that we're trendy. And there may be a slightly provincial feel to UKIP."
"There you go again. What relevance does the word 'provincial' have, two generations after The Beatles? It's a term you hear from elderly actors."
"Well, 'provincial' is used as an insult in this village of Westminster."
"I'm not asking you to convert to trainers and full denim."
"Maybe not, but the image is still troubling me..."
Farage has the grace to laugh.
"I'm not going to change. Like Cameron walking around without a tie, as though that's going to appeal to the kids. The UKIP image should reflect who is in it, as well as the leader."
"Well, the party's strength is in the shires rather than the metropolitan set."
"So how have you changed?"
"We are a damn sight more professional in terms of the people we have running things. When we started, the only way we could establish ourselves was by pointing out negatives. Now, most opinion polls show two to one that [UK voters are] against us being part of this European Union. Our job now is to outline how we think an independent Britain should be run."
"It's 60 years since our mutual hero [health minister in Clement Attlee's 1945 Labour government] Aneurin Bevan wrote a book called In Place of Fear..." (Hollow laugh from Farage, whose political idol is Enoch Powell.) "Do you think that government seeks to convince us that, if we left Europe, the sky would fall in?"
"Of course. I remember John Major, in 1990, talking about the ERM. [The European Exchange Rate Mechanism, to give it its full title, was the EU's doomed first step towards attempted monetary union.] He said, 'It's a cold, cold world outside the ERM. If we leave, terrible things will happen.'"
It was, coincidentally, the moment that radicalised Farage, until then a passive Conservative.
"I remember being in the City with my mates, saying: 'What is he talking about?' Then of course we did leave the ERM [in 1992]. It is all about fear. They govern through fear. Everywhere you go there are signs saying, 'Don't Do This.' I want to tear them all down."
"Right by your office here there's a sign that says, 'DO NOT LET YOUR DOG FOUL OUR LOVELY GARDEN.' That 'lovely' alone is practically an incitement to defecate, isn't it?"
"It is. And all the 'No Smoking' signs. I can't bear it."
(Farage maintains a defiant loyalty to Rothmans.)
"There is nothing to fear," he adds, referring to UKIP's main aim of withdrawal from the EU. "Switzerland and Norway have harmonious relationships with member countries. Surely we can do as well."
"Presumably you're not impressed by these unelected technocrats who now run some EU economies?"
"It's the road to dictatorship. It will breed extreme nationalism. The economic model is bust. The more money they throw at it, the more terrible it is going to be."
Nigel Farage was born in Herne, the Kent village that was also home to Charles Darwin, in April 1964. His father was a heavy-drinking City trader who Nigel appears to have adopted very early on as a role model. (Guy Farage, who stopped drinking at 36, left the City at Christmas.) The UKIP leader was privately educated, at Dulwich College, where he organised teams of younger boys to clean shoes, allowing him (to borrow the phrasal verb used by one former classmate) to "skim off" a profit.
"There were," he says, "one or two rackets going on."
His father had moved out when Nigel was five, leaving the future politician and his younger brother Andrew in the care of their mother. After A-levels, Farage went straight into the City, trading commodities such as tin and cocoa.
In 1993 he joined an organisation called the Anti-Federalist League, founded two years earlier by Alan Sked, now Professor of History at the London School of Economics.
"A group of us," Nigel Farage recalls, "persuaded Sked that a better name would be UKIP." Farage became a founder member of the new organisation in September 1993. "Alan was our leader for three years." ("I hardly need to be persuaded," Sked told me. "There was no opposition to the name change.")
At the 1997 election UKIP found itself eclipsed by Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party. Farage says that Sked was unwilling to make an accommodation with Goldsmith, as he himself was urging. ("Nothing was further from the truth," asserts Sked, who says that his own messages to Goldsmith failed to get past one of the Anglo-French millionaire's close allies.)
"Sked later accused you of having become 'enmeshed' with the BNP, didn't he?"
UKIP has had its embarrassments regarding infiltration from the extreme right, notably in the form of one Mark Deavin, who joined in 1997, and was expelled after being revealed as a BNP activist.
"So you're not a shadowy collective of neo-fascists?"
"That's utter cobblers. That sort of remark does make me furious. I have always rejected any deal with the BNP. Our website states that former members of the BNP are not welcome as members of UKIP. We have a pretty good checking system."
There are whole internet sites dedicated to UKIP infighting. The party, which has never won a seat in the Commons, currently has 11 MEPs. They are the most influential voice in the eurosceptic coalition Europe of Freedom and Democracy (EFD) which includes the Italian Northern League, a party frequently criticised for crass xenophobia and racial intolerance. In 2003 the League's current federal president, Umberto Bossi, advocated opening fire on boatloads of desperate African immigrants, people he described as "bingo-bongos". (In 2010 UKIP MEP Nikki Sinclaire left the party following her refusal to collaborate with the EFD.)
While many feel that Farage might choose his allies more carefully, nobody I spoke to believed he was a closet Nazi.
As the Liberal Democrat minister Chris Huhne once put it: "UKIP are not fascists, they're not corrupt and they're not morons." Even if, as he added, "Some of their leaders are head-bangers."
Farage took charge of the party in 2006 and provided UKIP with its most distinctive, high-profile figurehead. His election followed a turbulent period which began in 2004, when broadcaster and former Labour MP Robert Kilroy-Silk got involved in the organisation, of which he declared himself de facto leader. UKIP had traditionally been described as "7,000 members with 8,000 egos". Having spent some time with Kilroy-Silk during this troubled era, I'd suggest that his arrival must have added several zeroes to the second half of that equation. (Though Kilroy-Silk, for all his quirks, was far better placed than Farage to engineer an electoral consensus.)
Nigel Farage has published two volumes of autobiography: Fighting Bull (2010) and Flying Free, which appeared last year. ("This semi-literate book reads as if it were dictated during a drinking session," Alan Sked observed of the first. "My copy came in ring-binder form. I keep it in the toilet.") "It was your writing about your admiration for Enoch Powell that made me really queasy," I tell him. "You do say he was your hero."
"I have several heroes. I admired Powell enormously."
The recent rise in net migration to Britain has become a concern for all parties, and has, predictably, been vociferously addressed by UKIP. "What worries me," I tell Farage, "is the way the Government appears to focus on deterring immigrants from outside the EU. I think anyone who's spent time in Harare, say, would feel that any Zimbabwean who wants to come to Britain should be given the chance. But they come, to put it bluntly, carrying the wrong passport, with the wrong skills and in the wrong colour."
"They are discriminated against because we have an open door into Poland, Romania and Bulgaria."
"That furious row in 1972, over whether Britain should admit the Ugandan Asians: how many people were they talking about?"
"Twenty-seven thousand. They have arguably been the single most successful migrant entry into this country. Then we talk about opening the border in 2004 and 850,000 [immigrants] come. We have never experienced anything like this. We have a proud record on refugees and UKIP wants Britain to honour the principles that it always has done. I hate this myth that Blair started in 2004, to defend the open border, suggesting that [Eastern Europeans] work hard, implying that people here are useless."
"A theory heartily endorsed by your friends in the CBI, who welcomed a source of cheap disposable labour."
"Their argument is that inflation is kept down by lower wages. But inflation isn't our biggest worry at the moment. Youth unemployment is."
How about Enoch Powell's notoriously inflammatory 'Rivers of Blood' speech, delivered in Birmingham in 1968?
"A grave error. Powell, on immigration, got it badly wrong."
"So why did you like him so much?"
"The way he picked up the Treaty of Rome in 1961 and argued that this meant losing our democracy. He was one of the first to see what this European project would mean."
The broadly consensual tone of Farage's remarks alters somewhat when I mention the Battle of Orgreave and other episodes from the 1984 miners' strike.
"I think that the policies Margaret Thatcher brought in – while they did bring a huge amount of misery to people in the north of England – were necessary to turn Britain into a modern global economy. And," he adds, "she was the least prejudicial, most pro-social-mobility prime minister we have probably ever had."
In the pause that follows, I find myself wondering what Attlee, who implemented health and education reforms including the NHS, would have made of that last sentence. I'm surprised – looking at this purely from Farage's own strategic view – that the leader of any party, single-issue or otherwise, would articulate views guaranteed to kiss goodbye to 50 per cent of the electorate.
"We had to get with it," Farage says. "We couldn't have the country run by Communist bully boys, many of whom were in the pay of Moscow."
But the most resonant memories of the 1980s, for Nigel Farage, don't involve police baton charges, lengthening dole queues, or humiliated miners risking arrest for gathering fuel.
In the 1980s, he recalls, "the City was a great place to be. It was unbelievable. The booze culture was mega. The drugs culture was huge. I left the drugs culture alone completely, thank goodness."
"Why 'thank goodness'?"
"If I had smoked cannabis, I probably would have done it to excess. There was enough trouble with the booze culture, and I am one of the lucky ones. Because I really enjoy going for a drink, but I don't need it."
"What precisely did you love about the City?" k
"It was competitive. It was quite brutal. It was tough but very exciting."
"And then there was the money."
"I went into it thinking the money was everything. But I grew to love the lifestyle."
"Like that Harry Enfield character?"
"There were things we said and did then..." Farage, uncharacteristically, appears to jump on the brakes at this point. "Values change," he says. "I wasn't like that [Loadsamoney] caricature. But there were elements of crudeness in the City."
"Language and behaviour."
"What kind of language?"
"It wasn't just the 'f' word. People were routinely abused.
"Abused? In what terms?"
"In every term."
"Everything. That was the culture."
"Because you have been accused, haven't you, of using the 'n' word, as it's customarily called."
"That allegation was made by a political rival. He can't substantiate it."
The claim formed part of an article published by the Mail on Sunday in 2004, in which Alan Sked said that he'd heard Farage use the word "nigger".
"I was quite shocked," Sked said. "I had never really heard people talk like this before. Others just thought that it was Nigel being funny but to me it really wasn't funny at all."
"It is not true," Farage says.
In the same article, under the headline, "Race Slurs, Strippers and £100 a Bottle Champagne... Sleazy Past of UKIP Boss", another associate complained about having been taken by Farage to a Strasbourg strip club. After staying for "three or four hours" (presumably so as to be absolutely certain that the ambience was inappropriate), he said he became concerned by Farage's behaviour.
"Looking through newspaper cuttings, I find a colleague talking about your visiting lap-dancing clubs after leaving a Strasbourg bar called Les Aviateurs; is that true?"
"Is what true?"
"'His head wedged between a woman's breasts; he must have stayed a while. We all had a glass of champagne; Farage stayed on... stuck in a warm embrace.' That kind of thing."
"Does that," the UKIP leader asks, "sound like any club you've ever been to?"
"Well, there is this place called The Shack in South Carolina; it's a 10-minute drive across the state line from Augusta, Georgia..."
"It is all," Farage says, "a massive over-exaggeration."
He will admit, however, to being unusually accident-prone. His first brush with death occurred that night in Orpington, returning from the City at a period when, according to his first book, "I was handling millions and drinking more or less continuously." He was run over after stopping off at an Indian restaurant, where he had been arguing against the Anglo-Irish Agreement while drinking Jameson's.
Farage landed on his head, sustaining severe injuries. Doctors feared he would lose a leg. Gráinne Hayes, his nurse, became his first wife. (The politician has four children: two sons with Clare, both now grown up and in the City; two daughters with his current wife, Kirsten Mehr, a German national who married him in 1999.)
Months after recovering from the traffic accident, Farage was diagnosed with cancer in his left testicle. Following the operation to remove it, he spent 48 hours believing that the disease had spread to his lungs. In 2004, I remind him, a woman reporter wrote a profile that began with the line: "I am quite relieved that Nigel Farage has only one testicle."
"That," he says, "was offensive beyond belief. Can you imagine a male journalist writing that about a woman who has had a breast removed?"
Farage has borne most of this with broad shoulders. But even he concedes that the Latvian episode, leading to that News of the World article in January 2006, represented something akin to folly.
"Do you think the paper went after you because of who you are?"
Insisting that no impropriety took place, Farage says, "I was drunk as a sack. It rarely happens, but that day I was out of it."
"If you ever feel the need to repeat the experience," I suggest, "you might be wiser to visit The Shack in South Carolina, rather than The Black Horse in Biggin Hill."
"I put myself in a position from which I had no defence. When you cross the threshold [of a stranger's home] they can say what they like. It was a big lesson learnt."
"Has it moderated your carousing?"
"That's been a gradual process. My body has been smashed to bits twice."
"In the light-aircraft crash in 2010 [Farage had briefly resigned as UKIP leader to stand against the speaker, John Berkow, MP for Buckingham] your banner became snagged in the tail-fin..." I have to stop at this point, because for some reason I find myself wondering, had my interviewee been French, quite how I would have gone about translating that last phrase. "I'm sorry," I tell the politician. "I shouldn't laugh. This really isn't funny."
"Feel free. Seriously. You have to laugh. I mean, really, what an idiot I was, getting involved in it at all."
"And then, afterwards, wasn't the pilot charged with saying that he wanted to kill you?"
"Yes. He was hurt, mentally. It's all very sad."
"I read one report that said: 'Farage was lying in the wreckage, moaning: "I'm scared, I'm scared."' If I'd broken my sternum, I'd be scared."
"Crashing was one thing. You see the ground coming up; you can be relatively philosophical about that. But I was thinking, this thing's going to catch fire. And the idea of burning was very scary indeed."
"Not too bad."
We adjourn to the pub where he meets half-a-dozen associates. Over the years, in the course of work, I've attended more than one meeting of UKIP supporters. One gathering in particular resembled the fishing expedition from the film of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
This group of Farage's colleagues and friends is different. They are amusing, relaxed, accommodating and good company, perhaps because, compared to mainstream politicians, they have far less to lose. ("When you've been turned over as often as I have," a government minister once told me in similarly informal circumstances, "you tend to be careful.")
They're a remarkably mixed bunch: not the sea of white faces I'd expected, and much younger and sharper than any UKIP members I've come across before. At one point, one of Farage's close friends tells me how he wishes Nigel would get a driver to take him home at night, instead of insisting on taking the late-night commuter train: services which are becoming increasingly threatening even to people whose face is not easily recognised.
For an hour or so I fall into conversation with a young man who grew up half a mile from where I did in south Manchester – hardly UKIP's favourite kind of recruiting ground – and I imagine would make an excellent candidate should he be so inclined. Talking to him, I'm a little surprised that UKIP doesn't seem to have worked harder to seek out candidates who might thrive outside of its natural heartland.
"People from the left do vote for us in European elections," Farage says, "and they do so in numbers far larger than most commentators understand. But they don't tend to join us. The activist base tends to be, er..."
"There are a lot of ex-Tories. I obviously want to change that."
How urgently Nigel Farage wishes to enforce this revolution, I'm not sure. I suspect he is unshakeably confident that, where the EU is concerned, the wind is building, and blowing in a favourable direction for UKIP. When the euro collapses, he tells me, is a question of "not if, but when". Should Britain enter a double-dip recession aggravated by a Greek default, eventually threatening the European Central Bank, the current stiff breeze could turn into a hurricane. And if that happens, who knows what curious beasts might suddenly spread their wings, and fly.