‘This is the hand that shook Nigel’s’, an exalted Brexit party activist proudly told EURACTIV. He had driven nearly two hours from Gloucester to watch and listen to his hero in action. It was a journey well made.
The Brexit party didn’t exist three months ago. Now it looks like it could break open Britain’s two-party system. The European elections that the UK was not supposed to hold will take place next Thursday. And Nigel Farage’s Brexit party are set to top the poll with more than 30% of the vote.
The party is holding a series of rallies across the country, primarily in Labour heartlands with a majority Leave vote.
Like previous rallies, the shindig on Thursday evening (16 May) in Willenhall, just outside the Midland’s city of Wolverhampton, is standing room only and fizzing with largely positive energy.
“People who say there are going to vote for the Brexit party are half Labour and half Conservative,” Martin Daubney, the party’s second candidate in the West Midlands, told EURACTIV.
“There are people going through a lot of soul searching who want to talk to us…they are going through a trauma, throwing away their political legacies.”
“I’m getting hugged by Labour party activists. I’ve never voted for UKIP or Nigel Farage in my life. I’m a lifelong Labour voter,” he added.
Despite the slickness of the PR operation – Richard Tice, the multi-millionaire founder of the ‘Leave means Leave’ campaign group, is an effective MC whipping up the crowd – the candidates’ lists were put together in a matter of weeks.
Daubney, a media personality and former editor of the lads’ magazine Loaded, was approached as a possible candidate just before MPs rejected Theresa May’s Brexit deal on March 29, the day the UK was supposed to leave the EU.
It was a “huge decision which took three soul-searching days” and conflicting advice from his parents. His Dad was against the idea, his mother in favour, he says.
Catherine Harbor, another candidate in the region, said she was adopted as a candidate shortly after a meeting with Farage. Her doctor had just given her the all-clear after 21 months of cancer treatment. “He told me to take a holiday. I don’t think he was expecting me to stand as an MEP,” she said.
Harbor said that her policy priorities are tackling climate change and improving cancer care in the UK health service.
But although the European elections are the first target, precious little of the rally is devoted to it, and even less to substantive policy. Immigration control – one of the key drivers of the Leave vote – is barely mentioned.
A couple of speakers go through the motions of explaining what they would do as MEPs, but it is firmly of secondary importance to breaking up the dominance of the Conservative and Labour parties.
Much of the campaign rhetoric is straight from the Trump playbook. That’s no surprise since Farage and Tice have consciously tried to model themselves on the Donald.
Instead of exhortations to ‘drain the swamp’, there are attacks on “useless and incompetent civil servants who don’t believe in Britain”. Taking the place of CNN and ‘fake news’ is the ‘biased BBC’.
Mention of Theresa May brings a few calls of ‘lock her up’, just like Trump supporters chanted of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
The main challenge is ‘to change politics for good’ and, in Farage’s words, “sweep aside a two-party system that now only serves itself.”
The Brexit party is clear on one thing when it comes to policy. It wants a ‘no deal’ Brexit, with the UK trading with the EU on WTO terms.
“If we win big, then a WTO Brexit will be back on the table,” says Farage.
Theresa May’s Brexit deal will go back before MPs a week after the European elections and is almost certain to be defeated. “If the Withdrawal Agreement is passed, support for the Brexit party would increase,” Farage says.
If Eurosceptics have learnt one thing in recent years, it is that angry negative campaigning doesn’t work, and it is impossible to ignore the undeniable positive energy in the room. If the abiding memory of the Leave march on Westminster on March 29 was a sense of visceral anger and betrayal, the mood in Willenhall is largely optimistic.
They are really here to see Nigel, and the hero obliges.
“Barnier wasn’t elected. Tusk wasn’t elected and as for Jean-Claude Juncker, after lunchtime, he doesn’t know if he was ever elected.”
“Britain needs the Brexit party and the Brexit party needs you.”
The reference to Lord Kitchener’s slogan to recruit soldiers for World War One may sound simplistic but it works. The several thousand supporters who actively wanted to be there and paid for the privilege, go home satisfied.
“£2.50 well spent,” the punters murmured at the end of the 80 minutes of speeches.
“It’s not a hard sell. We know that people will approach us,” said one party activist from nearby Staffordshire. He told EURACTIV that within two days of setting up a local Facebook page, he had 80 activists at a campaign meeting.
“I’m a calm 32-year-old male and I’m that angry that I’m ready to have a riot,” his friend added.
UKIP always attracted a mixture of the unsavoury and weird – prompting David Cameron to label them as ‘fruitcakes’. It’s far harder to pin the far-right sticker on the Brexit party. Sure, the audience demographic is largely middle-aged and almost exclusively white, but that’s not unusual in provincial England.
“If we finish up with a total betrayal, then the Brexit party will win the next general election,” says Farage. As the meeting breaks up, it doesn’t seem that unlikely.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]