Not even Jim can fix it now

With ambitious wannabes managing its lacklustre campaign, Sir James Goldsmith's Referendum Party now has more to do with personal gain than political idealism

The Referendum Party has a new secret weapon. Pagers. Malcolm Glenn, the party's managing director, who also has a mobile phone clipped to his trouser braces, points at the black box at his waist: "Any time Sir James is about to be on TV or the radio

Shrimsley smiles a little at the admission. "I've only come on board recently," he says. His office seems barely unpacked: just a plain desk, a trail of telephone wires, and an open copy of the Daily Telegraph. The rest of the Referendum Party headquarters is much the same. Mid-morning, the dim corridor of rooms mutters rather than bustles. Envelopes are stacked, not scattered. Small party posters hang in dark corners. All four dozen staff are at their desks: young, well-bred heads over their keyboards, the women thinner than the men, typing for "JG" as if his party was a medium-sized charity. They do not offer handshakes.

Yet Shrimsley conducts the tour apparently unperturbed. "It's appropriate that we've got such a small set-up," he says, "because we're a narrow- issue party." And there is method in his meander through the worn hallways. Shrimsley is an old Fleet Street hand; he leads the visiting eye to the modest, the discreetly enthusiastic. "You don't want to bore everyone to death," he says. The Referendum Party, pounds 20m strong, the creation of the cartoon tycoon to end them all, is quietly adjusting its ambitions downwards.

Listening to Sir James Goldsmith last week, pouring out his answers on Breakfast With Frost, pounding callers on a phone-in on Radio Five, you might not have thought so. Behind this bluster, though, election day expectations are lowering. "Judging it on seats is not going to be very helpful," says one party manager. "We've got candidates who really believe they can do it. We'll give them all the support we can. But history is going to judge by the total vote. If we get a million votes [1,500 in each constituency], it will be respectable."

On Radio Five, the inevitable question about polling day quietened even Goldsmith. Then he answered, with what might have been a nervous quaver: "I've not the slightest idea." This may prove to be wise. It is very difficult to find a political analyst currently pondering the Referendum Party at all, let alone any possibility of their success. "As their impact is likely to be limited and temporary," says Ian Budge, a professor at Essex University's department of government, "no one who studies politics is terribly interested in them." David Denver, an election specialist at Lancaster University, agrees: "They've got nobody on the ground to do the street-fighting, and they can't buy up television airtime like Perot or Berlusconi."

Instead, more dispiriting precedents suggest themselves: Lord Beaverbrook's Empire Crusade, blowing itself out in the St George's Westminster by-election of 1931, or Oswald Mosley's swaggering crowd dwindling down, later that decade, to a huddle of taxi drivers and ex-colonels. Earlier this month, Goldsmith's son-in-law, Imran Khan, led a populist surge of his own to annihilation in the Pakistani elections. And for all the impressive-sounding poll ratings among "might-dos" and "maybes" that the Referendum Party presses on journalists, the figure that newspapers have given most space to - MORI's estimate for committed Goldsmith voters - is an embarrassing one: 0.5 per cent.

Some of this is not his party's fault. It is a potent and enduring truism of British politics that our system of disproportional representation crushes small parties. The process is most thorough at general elections.

Over the last six months, however, the party has blundered with sufficient regularity to risk collapse in any system. It has included in its membership list reporters who expressed a merely professional interest; failed to gag a defecting campaign manager who denounced "a nothing party ... run by political amateurs"; changed press officers three times; even attempted to smother bad poll figures by ordering the agency it hired to angle the questions. While Goldsmith has been striding through television studios, and billboards have been bellowing, and pro-Referendum newspapers floating down on to every doorstep, his party has simultaneously seemed shifty, defensive, fond of legal heavy breathing. It has seemed to be falling apart.

A contrast has been widely drawn between the confident whirl of the Referendum Party conference, in Brighton last October, and these more recent confusions. Then, the Sunday Times could gush, giddy with the activists' glitz, that "the whole party is part of the Goldsmith family". Now, candidates withdraw to the small sound of gloating.

But the party's weaknesses run deep. From birth, it made more noise than its actual strength or attractiveness to voters merited.

Last spring, for all the Conservatives' anxieties about the Referendum Party snatching away seats, Goldsmith had virtually no one to stand in them. With the election at most a year away, necessity made careful scrutiny of potential candidates and party organisers impossible. In May, the party recruited Andy Carmichael as its campaign manager for the West Midlands. "In the interview I was quite surprised," he says. "They said, 'We have to watch out for right-wing extremists', but they never asked me what I had been doing between 1991 and 1996." He had been standing in by-elections for the National Front.

Carmichael was given a mobile phone and mileage allowance. He started hiring colleagues from the National Front (now the National Democratic Party) as Goldsmith's local agents. "The Referendum Party knew nothing about electioneering, like the logistics of sending in nomination papers," he says. The potential candidates that came forward were no more experienced: "You'd get people calling up who wanted to make names for themselves and knew Goldsmith had the money."

At headquarters, a different kind of amateurism reigned through the summer. It was the holidays, and "all these Henry and Camilla types were going on about organising parties", says one manager they irritated. Conservative Central Office was just round the corner, but Referendum Party volunteers bragged in the pub regardless. "Every time there was a leak," says the manager, "we'd say, 'Who?' It could have been anyone."

Some of this bumbling was curtailed by October. Half the volunteers were sacked. The rave they had planned for Brighton was cancelled. Carmichael was uncovered and dismissed, following a call from a Birmingham Post reporter. Nevertheless, by October the Referendum Party looked significant. It had its list of candidates: some cerebral, like Alan Walters, Margaret Thatcher's economics guru; some almost famous, like John Aspinall, the zoo owner; many eccentric, to judge by all their connections to far-right causes in Africa, but just as many appealingly ordinary, with jobs in social services and estate agents. And then there was the conference itself, attended by 4,000 members; Goldsmith's "rabble" was marching.

The trouble was, not all of his generals were quite as enthusiastic. "The majority of headquarters staff are disaffected Tories," says one former employee. "Everybody knows that the Referendum Party is going to fold in May; they want to damage the Tory party, but not so much that there's no way back."

At first, this closeness to the Conservatives gave Goldsmith's party much of its leverage. Officially, it was and is neutral on the question of Europe, other than to ask for a popular vote on the character of the European Union. In reality, the Referendum Party has always been, in its personnel and targeting of voters, a particularly rebellious Eurosceptic faction of the Conservative Party - hence its flirtations with MPs like John Redwood and Bill Cash.

But if it has been given life by Conservative intrigue, it can die by the same turmoil. The leaks, the infiltrators, the paranoia and fear of putting things on paper - many of the practices that stifle headquarters derive from the dominating presence of Central Office. The lure of advancement in Goldsmith's business empire - seen as dependent on his personal favour - is another force for instability. As one former staffer puts it: "The Referendum Party is not the main consideration for anyone significant in the party."

Then again, this temporary vehicle still has to be rolled to the election. Bernard Shrimsley proffers a video that is being sent to party workers to spread the word "on a tupperware basis". Regional offices are still being opened. Sir James will become more visible: "It's like Hamlet without the prince when he's not here," says Shrimsley.

Yet Goldsmith is unlikely to be enough on his own. His Boeing 757 may be ready for a national tour, but on Radio Five last week, his answers were hectoring, unattractive. In reply to a critical caller, Goldsmith began: "You're talking complete nonsense, of course." Election day is likely to turn another of his blurted assertions back on him: "People have greater wisdom than the political elites."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific