The picture is not so much a news shot as an epitaph.
Here we have Nigel Farage, one of the best media performers in British politics, one of the most startling British party leaders, engaged in a media event over which hovers an aura of political death. And Farage doesn’t even appear to realise it.
First – and this is the smaller point, I will get to the bigger point in a moment -- you have to wonder how any press officer arranged for his party leader to launch anything, much less a ‘campaign battle bus,’ like this; to launch it alone, with no supporters, with no crowd, the open-top bus isolated in a deserted London square except for a few photographers on hand to record the emptiness.
The top of the bus should have been crowded with every UKIP MEP, local councillor and party official the press officer could have corralled, all of them looking happy, confident and cheering.
Every other space on the bus should have been packed out with members of the youth wing of UKIP. London party activists should have been placed so they crowded the bus at street level. There should have been a band playing marching tunes for the 30 minutes before the launch to draw in many curious passers-by from busier nearby streets.
This is basic press officer stuff.
Then when the party leader appeared and climbed to the top of the bus to join the cheering crowd, that would have been a picture that told a story of campaign life and vigour.
Instead the UKIP leader had a crowd turnout that failed to match the numbers at a pauper’s funeral. And the national press photographers were there to record the sad little disaster.
But this, as I said, is the smaller point. It is however indicative of the larger problem which is the refusal of most of the Leave campaign – in this case, the UKIP part of the Leave campaign – to grasp the difference between holding onto their base vote and persuading the undecided voters to support Leave.
In other words, they refuse to plan for a referendum instead of a general election. Or, in truth, to plan at all.
In fact, the isolation of Farage on the bus, had he realised the disaster in which he was participating, could have been turned around, even at the last moment.
It was an opportunity to make a strong, simple statement of policy, undistracted by anything else going on, that would have been picked up by the waiting reporters.
All that was needed was an adherence to basic press relations, even simpler than knowing how to pack an open-topped bus: Farage only had to decide the message for the day. A message is a one-sentence statement of about 30 words.
The message had to include two things: one of Farage’s most important points, and one of his target-audience’s most important points.
In this case, and in every case from here to June 23, that target-audience is the block of undecided voters. It is not UKIP fans. The campaign already knows how they are going to vote.
This is simple stuff. I’ve been a journalist all my working life, and this is exactly what any reporter expects of hear if he is covering a professional political launch of any kind: a message.
The message would have been the headline.
An interview itself, however brief, would have included three talking points. Experienced press officers know to keep their politicians to three points only: “Two is a pair, four is a list, boss. The voter’s brain holds three.”
And the points would have been worked out weeks before, and repeated and repeated, so that the essence of the position is unmissable.
As I say, basic stuff. But in the period before the last general election, I came across this comment from a voter, reported in the Financial Times: ‘I look at UKIP policies and I don’t know what on earth they stand for.’
Today that could accurately be changed to: ‘I look at UKIP policies and I don’t see how they plan to take the UK safely out of both the EU and the Single Market.’
Instead of a three-point statement of how UKIP plans to do exactly that, this is what Nigel Farage fed to the waiting reporters as to his plan for the national tour in the bus:
‘This is not stage-managed, we are just going to roll up, appear in towns and cities, meet a lot of people and do our stuff.’
This ‘plan’ has as much failure written across it as the best man who decides he doesn’t have to write his speech, he will just leave it for the spirit (and the alcohol) to move him to say something clever about the groom when the moment comes: ‘I’ll just do my stuff.’
Beyond that confirmation of not bothering to work out tour tactics, all the UKIP leader offered was a cutesy comment about alcohol on the bus: ‘I’ve got the best drinks cabinet anywhere in the county.’
Then he promised his bus would be ‘a heap more fun’ that the other Leave campaign bus being used by Boris Johnson.
Journalism rule number one is that a reporter has to file at least one quote from an event. What quotes did Farage hand the reporters? Those two lines.
And how many undecided voters would be swayed to consider voting Leave because of those comments? Exactly none. Indeed, the sway could go the other way (‘A politician stuck talking about drink wants us to trust him to lead us out of the Single Market’)
UKIP needs to drop the drink jokes. It just looks tired. It is sways no undecided voters.
This bus launch was as much a wasted opportunity as Boris Johnson’s damaging vanity performance earlier in the week, in which – in the midst of a speech on the referendum that had some unusually meaty comments, well worth quoting – he started to sing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy in German.
Not only is Johnson a professional politician, he is a former journalist. He must have known – it is impossible that he did not know -- that the reporters and broadcaster editors would go for the German singing and not the meat of his argument.
In a 15-second evening news clip, there would be no room for both.
It appears Johnson cannot get out of the habit of selling his own personality when he ought to be selling an argument.
Farage is doing the same thing with his tired comments on drink and vague cry of ‘We want our country back.’ Yes, we know we want our country back. But explaining how to get from here to there takes some brain work. It takes the formation of strategy. Above all, it takes some prep.
Neither Johnson nor Farage seem to think the effort to deliver on the prep is necessary.
Neither seems to grasp the difference between standing for election with their name on the ballot (‘Oh, look, it’s that jolly good fellow Johnson/Farage. I do like him!’) rather than trying to give confidence to men and women that a decision to vote Leave will be safe for their jobs and businesses, and better for their futures.
In between the German singing and the drink jokes, neither part of the Leave campaign is giving a clear explanation of how British business can get from here to independence without upheaval.
Neither is giving a clear outline – a clear warning -- as a repeated, and repeated message, of the plans the EU is making for the further rapid evolution of the Eurozone into a centralised state with a near-helpless UK lashed alongside.
Undecided voters aren’t hearing any of that from Boris Johnson. But then, no one is really sure his really wants Brexit anyway.
But they aren’t hearing it from Nigel Farage, either. He used to be a great salesman. The opinion polls tell us that, these days, Willie Loman’s best days are behind him.