Mischievous, long-time Euro-skeptic and ascendant political force Nigel Farage smiles as he pulls out the cover of his passport. It's a homemade depiction of the way British passports used to look before the country joined the European Union, deep blue with a giant coat of arms and "British Passport" written in gold across the top. Tucked inside is his actual passport, in red, with "European Union" on the top.
"I had a bunch of these made up," Mr. Farage says, holding the cover like a prized possession. He's standing in London's St. Pancras train station about to board a first-class cabin of the Eurostar bound for Brussels. He looks dapper in a hat and long coat and laughs easily, in a raspy manner that's a product of far too much smoking. "Kind of like condoms, aren't they?"
Mr. Farage wastes no opportunity to mock, chastise or criticize the EU. He has made it a crusade as a co-founder and leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKip, dedicated to pulling Britain out of the EU.
For years, the party languished on the fringe of British politics, barely getting 3 per cent of the vote in most national elections and once derided by Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron as a collection of "fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists."
Mr. Cameron won't be so dismissive any more. As Europe struggles with a never-ending financial crisis and the recession drags on in Britain, UKip's anti-EU message and stance on immigration reform is winning converts. The party finished second in two recent by-elections, came third in another and is polling as high as 13 per cent nationally (above 20 per cent in some regions), putting the party neck and neck with Mr. Cameron's coalition partners, the Liberal Democrats. UKip is now Mr. Cameron's biggest threat as Mr. Farage begins to win over the Tory base and there is talk of Conservative MPs defecting. One sure sign of UKip's impact are recent comments Mr. Cameron made that Britain's withdrawal from the EU is "imaginable" and suggestions he might hold a referendum on EU membership.
All of which delights Mr. Farage, a chain-smoking, bibulous, former commodity trader who has been struggling to make UKip relevant for nearly 20 years. The party's message "is resonating because people are saying, 'Bloody hell, Nigel, you were right. We thought you were crackers,'" Mr. Farage says.
Mr. Farage, 48, relishes his role as thorn in the side of Mr. Cameron, who he believes is only interested in holding power. "There are two types of people in politics," he says. "There are those in politics to achieve rank and distinction, and there are those in politics who want to change the world. I'm a member of the latter category."
Mr. Cameron is feeling the heat. UKip's message of a strong, independent Britain – with tighter controls on work permits and social benefits for newcomers – resonates particularly well among some Tories and the unemployed who feel they are losing out to Poles in particular. Recently released census figures show there has been a ninefold increase in the number of Polish migrants in the past decade, with most of it coming after Poland joined the EU in 2004. All fodder for UKip and trouble for Mr. Cameron.
The two political rivals couldn't be more different. While the Prime Minister comes from privilege and was educated at Eton College and Oxford, Mr. Farage grew up in modest surroundings in Farnborough, southwest of London, with an alcoholic father who left when Mr. Farage was five years old. He skipped university, thought about joining the army but decided to pursue a career as a commodity broker, learning the cutthroat tactics of dealing copper, aluminum and other metals on the London Metals Exchange.
When Britain joined the EU in 1993 after a long, bitter debate, Mr. Farage was convinced the country had given up too much and he immediately helped form UKip. He has wanted to get Britain out ever since.
"I'm the Billy Graham of the Euro-skeptic movement," he says with a sweep of his arm to add to the effect. "You will never meet anybody as long as you live who has given up as much of his life to do politics as I have. You just won't. Bonkers, pig-headedness, bull-headedness, call it what you will. I was determined once I set this course to make this work."
He is also somewhat indestructible, literally. He has survived cancer, a car crash and a plane crash. The latter came on Election Day in 2010 when Mr. Farage hired a small plane to fly a banner for his campaign. The plane became tangled in the banner's cables and plunged to the ground, seriously injuring Mr. Farage and the pilot. "I remember thinking if I ever get out of this alive I'm going to be such a lovely boy," he says with a chuckle, adding that he decided not to text anyone heartfelt goodbyes as the plane went down. Then he adds: "I was a bit upset that they've got a no-smoking policy in the intensive-care unit. And I couldn't get a glass of anything either." As for how he did in the election: "Disastrous. No one votes for a sick man."
UKip has been largely a one-man show under Mr. Farage lately. Although a co-founder of the party, he didn't become leader until 2006, believing he wasn't old enough. He stepped down in 2009, after feeling burned out, and took over again in 2010.
He has also spent years modernizing the party and getting rid of what he called "the idiot wing," hard-liners who made the party resemble the fascist National Front. Some question just how successful that has been. A recent newspaper story portrayed the party's youth wing as a collection of all-white people who believe climate change is a "Marxist myth" and who refer to the EU as a "dictatorship." Many also expressed concern about other census figures showing that, for the first time, white Britons no longer make up the majority of the population in London.
Although UKip has been around since 1993, its big breakthrough came in 2009, when the party won 12 of the 72 seats allocated to Britain in the European parliament. However, the success came mainly because members of the European Parliament are elected across the EU on a proportional system, which benefits small parties. UKip has been unable to translate that support to national elections, which are run on a first-past-the-post system. Mr. Farage is among UKip's MEPs and some question why he would sit in a chamber he wants Britain to exit. All the better to push for change from the inside, he retorts.
As the party's support continues to rise, Mr. Farage is looking to Canada as a model. He sees Ukip as a latter-day Reform Party, a strong challenge to the old-line Progressive Conservatives. "I think the parallels with UKip today and the Reform Party in 1992 are quite eerie," he said, adding that the Tories ignored the challenge and were wiped out. "Reform revolutionized politics in Canada in an incredibly positive way." He has great admiration for Reform co-founder Preston Manning and hopes to meet him one day.
But that all seems a long way off. UKip still battles an image of intolerance and extremism and the party is clearly a bare-bones operation, struggling to keep up with its growing notoriety. During the trip to Brussels, Mr. Farage constantly fielded calls on his cell phone to deal with party issues. He can't cope with all the demands on his time (he recently returned from giving a speech to bankers in Toronto) and his wife now answers most of his e-mails. He'd like to do more research into voter attitudes and recruit strong candidates for the next election, expected in 2015. He'd also like to spend time with his four children, from two marriages, who range in age from 7 to 23.
When asked what might happen if Mr. Cameron simply adopts most of UKip's policies, Mr. Farage doesn't miss a beat: "We win. Come to the victory party. We would have changed the tide of history in this country."
And what would he do then? "Get a proper job."