(Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
It is just before 6pm in Peterborough on Tuesday, and huge queues have formed outside the Kingsgate Conference Centre. Nigel Farage is preparing to take to the stage at the Brexit Party’s latest rally. An estimated 1,750 turn out to cheer him on.
The branding inside the centre is slick – every seat is decked with a placard bearing the party logo and slogan – “change politics for good.” The stage is set beneath a giant screen bearing the logo and seven banners in the party’s chosen colour – an inoffensive sky blue. It all looks notably softer than Farage’s previous outfit – UKIP – which became instantly recognisable with its brash purple and yellow.
There’s a common trope in the media that Brexit voters tend to be old and white. Demographic analysis suggests there is some truth in that, but the crowd at Kingsgate tonight tells a different story. There aren’t hoards of young people, but there are some. The majority of the crowd look middle aged, most Peterborough locals, although one woman has travelled from Devon to be here.
The party chairman, former Conservative Party member and founder of the Leave Means Leave campaign, Richard Tice leads the warm up. The energetic crowd, loud music and slick businessman have a curious Blairite feel to it. That is until Tice “admits” he is a former member of the Conservative Party, and met with a chorus of jeers and boos. This is followed by cheers when he announces he has since quit. The anti-Conservative party sentiment of the crowd is palpable:
“Do we believe in Democracy?”
“Does Theresa May believe in Democracy?”
The pantomime led by Tice is just the start of an evening that defines itself by being everything Westminster isn’t. Talking about the candidates, Tice is keen to emphasise their credentials as “decent, hardworking, sensible” people, in contrast with the alleged chicanery and trickery of the current “Westminster lot.”
The upbeat music is incongruous with the anger emanating from the audience.
The area voted to leave – 61% to 39% – in the 2016 referendum. And more recently, the constituency became the first to kick out its MP under a recall petition. Fiona Onasanya won the seat for Labour with a majority of 607 in 2017, but was convicted early this year of perverting the course of justice for lying about a speeding offence. This week the Brexit Party announced Mike Greene would be standing in the by-election on 6 June. He is a former Conservative party member.
When Farage hits the stage on Tuesday evening, he receives a celebrity’s welcome. This is where he is clearly most at home, lapping up the atmosphere of the crowd and oozing a saccharine charisma.
Rattling off names of politicians, who can be best described in Farage’s terms as Brexit traitors, the crowd are with him every step of the way.
“How dare you Nick Clegg,” he cries. “How dare you Tony Blair, how dare you George Osborne, and how dare you Anna Soubry.” Surprisingly, or perhaps not, it was Soubry that elicited the most vehement response from the crowd.
The Brexit Party is keen to be seen as a broad-church movement, motivated by the central aim of leaving the European Union. “This isn’t about left or right, it’s about right or wrong,” he claims in grandiose style.
The former UKIP leader – a love him or hate him Marmite figure – is back. His message, that only the Brexit Party can be the custodians of the referendum result of 2016, has already taken the new party to the top of the opinion polls ahead of the European elections. Now he is aiming beyond that.
Earlier on Tuesday, a grumpy Farage held a press conference (a rarity in contemporary politics) to announce that the Brexit Party would be contesting the next general election. Winning the MEP elections – which the party still has to do to justify its hype – is presented as simply “the first step”.
The Peterborough by-election will be a challenge. If the Brexit Party wants to be seen as a new force to be contended with, winning not will be crucial.
And just three months ago this party didn’t exist.
By Tuesday they claimed to have 88,000 registered supporters. On Thursday morning Richard Tice tells me that number is closer to 90,000.
But where has this movement – a “groundswell” as Tice describes it – come from? And how far can they go?
With the announcement that they are now recruiting 650 candidates to contest the next generals, it is clear that Farage does not intend for this to be a flash in the pan movement. He is hoping to tap into something deeper, and to resonate and change British politics at its very core. To “change politics for good”, as their slogan goes.
What are the chances of this happening?
Sir John Curtice has seen a lot in a long career reading the runes in British elections. He tells me the Brexit Party looks set to do well in the euros. If Farage is right, that the energy to deliver Brexit has not dissipated among voters, then we can expect to see that manifest itself as millions of votes for the Brexit Party.
Why? Curtice points out that two years ago Tories were the most popular party with leave voters, but that is no longer the case. In 2017, Curtice says, the UKIP vote collapsed as leavers thought the Tories would be best able to deliver Brexit. Now that has been proven to not be the case, they’re migrating elsewhere.
The Brexit Party then is in a unique position to channel the resentment leave voters share towards parliament. The leave vote is, as Curtice puts it, very concentrated. This stands in marked contrast to the remain vote ahead of the European elections. It’s split between the Lib Dems, Change UK and even the Greens. Although, Labour is still the most popular party among remain voters – and present the biggest challenge to the Brexit Party as we approach the European elections.
A Brexit Party strategist agrees. It’s about targeting the Labour vote next. “Nobody else is close,” he told me, “the Tories are in free fall.”
But the Brexit Party faces a serious struggle in the North with leave voting Labour supporters. “A traditional voting pattern is still a traditional voting pattern” he points out.
The Brexit party think Corbyn failing to deliver on the 2016 referendum – which they take to mean taking the UK out of the single market, and exiting on WTO terms – is starting to cut through.
In contrast to its rivals, the Brexit Party is enjoying the benefits of that clarity of message. It’s not hard to work out what they’re about – but if they go into a general election it is unclear how they’ll manage the move from being a single-issue party to one that will need policies on all issues.
Will they have a full menu of policies on education, health, public services and defence? On Tuesday, Farage said that the Brexit Party will not discuss policy until after the European elections – they are the priority right now.
But he indicated the party would direct its focus away from London, proposing funding infrastructure projects across the Midlands and the North. Beyond that it isn’t clear.
The difficult experience of Change UK (The Independent Group) illustrates how tough it can be. They started in a mess, with cross-party disagreements on austerity, and parliamentary members who are diametrically opposed on fundamental issues.
It will be a difficult transition for the Brexit Party to manage, when it tries.
They are keen to emphasise they are a “broad church”, but they will be faced with tricky decisions. Are they a high tax or a low tax party? Are they for more public spending or less? Being “pro-democracy”, as they call themselves, won’t be sufficient – and if they are attempting to attract voters from all sides of the political spectrum then they are likely to run into the problems that Change UK stage-managed so poorly.
“We are competent, capable people who know what we’re doing,” says Tice when pressed.
John Curtice reckons that, as of now, the Brexit Party in a general election would roughly match the performance of UKIP in 2015. But as with UKIP, the first past the post voting system won’t help them win seats. UKIP got one seat for 3.9m votes in 2015, compared with the Tories securing 329 seats with 11.3m votes. Farage has never been an MP despite repeated attempts. It was this FPTP system that determined the fate of UKIP, Farage told reporters on Tuesday, but “if ever there was a time to break the system it’s now.”
How exactly he intends to do that is unclear.
But Farage should never be underestimated. He knows how to make waves through British politics, and he is unpredictable. He quit the leadership of his own party, UKIP, in 2016 shortly after the referendum, saying: “It’s right that I should now stand aside as leader. What I said during the referendum campaign is I want my country back. What I’m saying today is I want my life back… I have never been, and I have never wanted to be, a career politician.”
Things didn’t exactly pan out that way. Last year Farage addressed a fundraising event for the DUP, with UKIP’s largest financial backer Arron Banks. In August 2018 Farage announced he would return to campaigning for Brexit, as Leave Means Leave vice chairman. In December he resigned his membership of UKIP – explaining the party had gone in the wrong direction since he left as leader. In February 2019 the Brexit Party was approved by the Electoral Commission, and described by Farage as a “live vehicle” ready to be mobilised. By March, Farage had truly returned to frontline politics when he was announced as the party’s new leader.
As with any nascent party, a lot of basic questions have yet to be posed, let alone answered. The party says 90% of its funding has come from the £25 membership fee of its claimed near 90,000 members. The remaining 10% has come from one backer, Farage says. The Electoral Commission has yet to declare this information – but it’s in their hands, we’re told.
As the Brexit Party approaches a general election (the Tory majority now stands at only three, and that’s only with the support of the disaffected DUP) they will need more financial backing. Farage said on Tuesday that he is in talks with former Tory donors. Some potential donors have told Tice that they are “never going to donate to the Tory Party again.” But it is not just former Tory donors interested in the party, Tice says; he adds they are being flooded by calls from all sides of the left-right divide.
As for former UKIP backers, a spokesman for the party tells me they are mostly welcome – “if they’re decent people then why not.”
There has also been speculation that one former UKIP donor, the controversial Banks, a self-styled “Bad Boy of Brexit”, would be a significant backer of the Brexit Party. Farage emphatically denies this claim.
Banks and his sidekick Andy Wigmore were once so close to Farage, and to Tice, that it seems odd that his old pals are not involved. Banks is hard to control or direct, though. He does what he wants, as he did when he played a leading role in the unofficial Leave campaign in 2016.
“Nigel knows that the old nonsense puts people off,” says a veteran Farage observer. “Has to be done differently this time. Bye bye Banks.”
Or Banks in the background. We’ll see.
For now, the Brexit Party is storming ahead, dodging its way round difficult questions, and heading for an extraordinary showing in the European elections. When it comes to a general election, if the party performs in a similar way to UKIP in 2015, as Curtice predicts, they might not win many seats. “But their leverage rises on the fear they instil in the process in the first place.”
And if the party can be compared to the old UKIP in any meaningful way, perhaps that is it. Farage’s old party terrified the Tories under David Cameron, and helped persuade him that he had to commit to holding the referendum in the first place.
The party reckons they can remake the party system, as the Tories and Labour crumble. “This is a seismic moment in the history of politics of this country,” Tice says.
For now, the Brexit Party conceives of itself as a broad-church movement, and seems to pride itself on corralling interest from both sides of the left-right divide to maximise the pro-Brexit protest vote. But in a general election they risk splitting the right, taking more votes from the Tories, leaving the route to No 10 open to the far left and Jeremy Corbyn.
What should worry the Tories most is that it was their failure to deliver Brexit – not holding the referendum in the first place – that has set in motion what is possibly a deeper populist revolt. A revolt which might see the UK facing a major cultural realignment. Labour has cause to worry too, if the Brexit Party manages the difficult transition into being more than a protest party for the euros. If Farage and Tice pull it off, the Brexit Party will be a powerful, permanent and well-funded new force splitting the vote, turning safe seats held by the old parties into marginals, and causing all manner of additional havoc with unpredictable consequences.
There is a lot more havoc to come, say Farage’s fired-up team.
On Tuesday evening, Farage left the stage of the Kingsgate Conference Centre in Peterborough with the sound of another standing ovation from the faithful ringing in his ears. Off he went to ready himself for the next push, into the North of England, where he is hoping to win over leave voting Labour supporters.
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