“That had better be Gawain,” said Nigel Farage as my mobile phone rang. We were sitting in O’Farrells, the press pack’s favourite Irish pub on Luxembourg square, in front of the European Parliament. Gawain Towler, Nigel’s trusted press handler, was late, leaving the UK Independence Party leader exposed to prying questions with no witness present. It must have been 2006, writes Justin Stares.
Nigel’s career has since taken a stellar turn: from Brussels trouble-maker to major force in British and European politics. Thanks to his oratory skills, his personal attacks on Brussels bureaucrats, and YouTube, he has become one of the few politicians recognisable across the European Union.
Gawain’s career, meanwhile, has stagnated. Twice a UKIP candidate in European Parliament elections, twice pipped at the post (most recently by just 6,000 votes), and today, in his own words “redundant” i.e. without a formal job, though not actually without a salary (he is still technically employed by the Parliament’s Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy group -EFDD).
O’Farrells has disappeared – it’s now a sandwich shop – so we sit in the smokers’ section of The London, the bar next door. We reminisce about The Sprout, the satirical magazine – also long gone – that brought Nigel and Gawain together. “He came up to me and said ‘You like taking the piss, don’t you? We’re looking for someone’,” Gawain recalls.
In the years that followed, as UKIP grew, Gawain moved back to London and handled the British press, making friends and, this year, fighting fires as the mainstream media turned savagely, and in unison, against the party. “It was like the first night of the Somme,” says Gawain. The first sign of the coming onslaught was a question by a Daily Mail journalist about Nigel’s reported visit to a strip club in Strasbourg. Within days the two-man UKIP press office was “bombarded hourly” with queries about the party’s links with the English racist fringe. Journalists scanned the Facebook pages of candidates, looking for faux-pas dating back to their teenage years. “A journalist from the Sun [a tabloid newspaper] sent me a Word document with a list of claims. I clicked on properties and low and behold CCHQ [Conservative Campaign Headquarters] came up. It was a contrived campaign”.
And a largely unsuccessful one by the ruling British Conservative party – perhaps a good example that the press is not that powerful after all. “They maybe knocked one percent off our final score,” Gawain estimates. UKIP has 24 Euro MPs in Brussels, compared to the Conservatives’ 19 and opposition Labour’s 20. The Liberal Democrats have just one.
UKIP and its leader seem impervious to scandal. Why? “People are voting for us not because of the press but because they agree with us,” says Gawain. Britain’s traditional parties “have contempt for anyone without a degree”. He talks highly of his ultimate boss even though they are no longer intimate. Farage “smokes, drinks and plays about a bit” – a reference to alleged sexual dalliances – “but does not pretend to be someone else”. The British public “will forgive failure, but not hypocrisy”. Nigel “is not a fake”.
Gawain’s experience is still valued. He was drafted in to brief the leader ahead of the successful televised debates between Nigel and Nick Clegg, the British deputy premier and staunch Europhile. The next big prize is the British parliament, where Gawain says “15 to 20 seats” is an achievable target. He is planning to stand in his home county, Dorset, though the constituency is not high on the party’s list of winnable seats.
As he freely admits, he has struggled to forge comfortable relationships with the rest of the UKIP team. Last year he was sent from London back to Brussels after being “defenestrated” – he won’t go into details other than to say a personality clash was involved. Then after just a month and a half in the EU capital he was sent back to London after falling out with the press team. “The problem is that I have gravity,” Gawain explains. “If you, as a journalist, knew I was here, would you phone me or someone else?” he asks. “That was the root cause of the problem”.
What now? Gawain admits he would like his old job back in London. Since the election of Patrick O’Flynn, UKIP’s director of communications, to the Strasbourg assembly, the party is once again searching for a press expert. Newspaper correspondents in Westminster have offered to vouch for Gawain in writing; he has effortlessly forgiven their pre-election trespasses.
But after our fifth cigarette, I am left with the impression Gawain believes his chances are not brilliant. Other candidates are being interviewed for the job. Back in 2006, Nigel approached Gawain, in the pub, knowing he was the man for the moment. Today, Gawain is planning to put his own case to Nigel – in a letter, rather than over a pint of beer. “Nigel likes new baubles,” says Gawain; it is as close as he will come to a criticism.
He is in fact reluctant to criticise any of his colleagues, past or present, other than Annabelle Fuller, the former UKIP press aide who was alleged to have had an affair with Farage (both parties denied; Gawain says that while she was close to Nigel, he doesn’t think they had an affair). He is “not a fan” of Annabelle, who once appeared on the cover of The Sprout.
Interestingly, when I mention Aurelie Laloux, Farage’s righthand woman in Brussels and Strasbourg, Gawain bristles involuntarily, but again he will not criticise her. His career with the Brussels Euro-sceptic group is largely in Aurelie’s hands, he admits: “she makes the rules”. Ms Laloux, who is French, is largely unknown outside UKIP though seems to rule their roost on this side of the Channel.
With refreshing candour, Gawain recognises that his brash, buccaneering style might no longer fit the new ‘mainstream’ Euro-sceptic party. Like Nigel, he is not afraid to speak his mind, and talks of plans to sell his expertise to the private sector – industry lobbyists – if he can no longer work for UKIP or the EFDD group. “My value to the private sector is now,” says the father-of-four. “In the new European Parliament, industry will need someone who can talk to the Euro-sceptics, someone who can get them on industry’s side”. Redundancy, and the large payoff he would be entitled to, might be a blessing in disguise, he muses.
As with O’Farrells and The Sprout, change is of course inevitable: politicians, like press handlers, win and lose, come and go. “I’ll be alright,” says Gawain chirpily as he crosses Luxembourg square on his way back to the Eurostar station. “I’ve always fallen on my feet until now”.
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