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Everyone I met on my brief visit to the south Wales city of Newport for the Welsh leg of the Brexit party conference tour on 21st September, was friendly, open, and helpful. But the city, with its boarded up shop fronts, derelict buildings, and mini tented village of rough sleepers near the NCP car park, did look like a “seen better days” sort of place. The weary looking High Street was deserted save for the perpetually lingering, ragged looking refreshment seekers, lounging Mogg-like on the benches, or wandering, can in hand, aimlessly around the precinct.
I found myself wondering if Gina Miller had ever been here. Or if she even knew where it was.
In the 2016 referendum Newport, as far from the up scale prosperity of Miller and co’s Remainer-land, and the alleged metropolitan sophistication of London, as you can get, voted 56% to leave.
Wales overall voted for Brexit by a margin of 53% to 47%. This was crucial to the perception of the leave phenomenon. Had Wales voted remain, like Northern Ireland and Scotland, it would have led surely to an ‘English nationalism’ vs ‘progressive Celtic alliance’ narrative, with English Brexit voters characterized as the sort of knuckle-dragging chair throwing football hooligans that appear in quaint European capitals at major football tournaments. The Welsh vote has made that case slightly harder to make, though the Guardian has had a go anyway by claiming, without evidence, that it was English incomers to the principality that made the difference.
Guardian journalists, and Gina Miller, should visit Newport. They might learn something.
As we queue up outside the venue a dozen or so anti-racism demonstrators taunt us from the traffic island opposite. They are ignored, save for a few resigned grumbles: ‘I don’t like being called a racist. I don’t see their point’ says the young woman behind me in her soft lilting Welsh accent. She’s not angry, she just looks and sounds a little hurt, and a little sad.
The conference is compered by businessman Richard Tice and features five speakers. The slogan is “Are you ready?” (for Brexit, and the imminent general election), and the message from the stage is a clear and positive yes. The strategy is as follows: go hard for the Labour vote in Wales stressing their incompetence and duplicity; make a deal with Boris if he wants it, and if he doesn’t, he’s toast; there must be an emphatic rejection of any attempt to “reheat” Mrs May’s “new European treaty” (Farage’s description of the May/Barnier ‘deal’); and only a ‘clean Break’ (the defensive no deal is prohibited) will do.
First up to speak is the force of nature that is Anne Widdecombe, who delivers an incendiary barrage of contempt for the remainer establishment and the “worst parliament in history”. She has the best line of the evening when she likens the transition from our current EU membership to the putative May deal arrangement to being ‘like going from imprisonment to house arrest’. Widdecombe is a genuine star, a powerful speaker with intelligence, integrity, and courage, even if she does seem to be shadowing Farage a little too closely in her oratorical style. She is clearly having the time of her, second, political life. She is announced as a prospective candidate for the general election. If the right seat is found, she could even win.
We then have three Wales based Brexiteers, MEPs Nathan Gill and James Wells, and prospective parliamentary candidate Julie Price. Their milder contributions outlined their personal journeys, which were varied. Wells is a former civil servant who gave up a comfortable job for the huge gamble of contesting a European seat. A former Labour supporter he apologetically admitted to his dirty secret – joining the party in 2015 to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, because he was ‘angry at an arrogant establishment that lies to us all the time’. Cue pantomime booing. Price talked proudly of her family background and wartime service and concluded that ‘our elected representatives are not fit to lick my grandfather’s boots.’ Powerful stuff, but whether the references to World War 2 – ‘If we don’t respect the vote, I don’t know what we fought for’ – will resonate with a younger audience as much as it did with this one (average age at least 50 at a guess) remains to be seen.
Resounding cheers came for denunciations of Labour party mismanagement and corruption in Wales (issues that I knew nothing about but sounded remarkably similar to the situation in Scotland), from the fiasco of the M4 relief road project (cancelled after 114 million pounds had been spent), to tales of Labour councillors in Caerphilly voting themselves huge salary increases, at a time of pay freezes, who were then put on gardening leave for five years. Public enemy number 1 is First Minister of Wales Mark Drakeford, accused by Wells of conspiring with the EU (he’s made frequent trips to Brussels apparently) to stop Brexit in its tracks. Wells’s summation of the situation was bitter and uncompromising: ‘Welsh Labour has betrayed Wales.’
Then it was time for the leader. It was fascinating to watch the quintessential Marmite man up close, and impossible not to be impressed. Like him or loath him (all positive statements about Nigel Farage must begin this way) it can’t be denied that the Brexit Party leader is a superb speaker. He’s no great phrase-maker ‘Welsh Labour has become the party of Islington, not Islwyn’ is as good as it gets – but in terms of pace, rhythm, and cadence, not to mention passion, he is world class. Speaking without notes for 20 minutes he held the hall spellbound with the clarity and simplicity of his message of freedom and betrayal.
It is remarkable that a stockbroker’s son and Dulwich College alumnus who made his money in the City and is fond of dressing like the Earl of Grantham in Downton Abbey on a day’s hunting can connect with working class audiences in a way that David Cameron, or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter, could only dream of. The key is, I think, that though Farage likes to be liked (he’s notoriously thin skinned), he makes no effort to be likeable. There’s a ‘take me as I am or to hell with you’ quality to Farage that is appealing and makes him stand out. He is practically the only regular panellist on discussions programmes (Peter Hitchens, who loathes Farage, is another), who doesn’t try to ingratiate himself with audience members by thanking them for their ‘excellent’, ‘important’, ‘wonderful’ questions. There’s something attractive about that.
Amid all the dripping contempt – John Bercow: “ghastly man”, Guy Verhofstad: “vile”, and Emily Thornberry: “poor Richard (Tice) had to sit next to her for an hour (on Question Time). It must have been awful”, there were warmer words, and a clear message for the Prime Minister: “I have some human sympathy for Boris. A deal (in the form of at least a non-aggression pact) is still on the table.” Clearly, the hand of partnership, if not friendship, is still extended, but it’s growing weary, and the muscles are tightening, about to snap back. This, at least, is the message.
We end with a special guest encore, Mark Reckless AM the one time Conservative who made the switch to the Brexit party and is now party leader in the Welsh assembly. The signal to disgruntled Eurosceptic Conservatives is clear: there is a home for you elsewhere, and a welcome in the valleys.
This was an impressive event, it is no mean achievement get a full house of 600 people (supporters of the party but not members) for a political event in an unglamorous location, with many coming from quite far afield to attend. Could any other political party achieve this?
These people are not going to give up. But for all the fire and fury, and the indefatigable spirit, there was a troubling question in the air, one not really addressed: what if Boris brings back a deal, with marginal, and largely cosmetic improvements on the hated May treaty? And what if the DUP reluctantly back it, most of the ERG fall into line, and Stephen Kinnock manages to pool enough Labour MPs in vulnerable Leave seats to get it over the line?
Brino will have been achieved, an ersatz Brexit that will be relentlessly promoted as the real thing, while in truth nothing much will have changed. The Brexit party will know the truth but how about the rest of the exhausted public? Some may join the rebellion, but others, perhaps the majority, may shrug their shoulders, offer thanks to God that the nightmare appears to be over, and move wearily on.
Are we ready for that?
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