Nigel Farage hails new political force Ukip, while gaffe-prone Godfrey Bloom delivers a fresh political farce
Party conference turns to high comedy
Whether by accident or design, it was Bloomsday from the start. “I had the most blistering row with Godfrey in a Strasbourg restaurant the other day,” Nigel Farage chortled in his speech at the Ukip conference at Central Hall in Westminster, making the best of his colleague’s troublesome tendency to stick his foot in his mouth and then start in on the ankle.
“If the choice is between our being browbeaten through political correctness … or to be a party of free debate,” he went on, “then be in no doubt: we must be the party of free speech.”
Poor old Nigel. A mere five hours later, Mr Bloom had forced him to take a different view. This time, Mr Farage said, “Godfrey has gone beyond the pale … and we have no option but to remove the whip.”
What happened in the interim was as brisk a guide to political hara-kiri as you are likely to witness. It began with Mr Bloom’s appearance at a fringe meeting on women in politics, which is a fun idea. I counted about 30 men in the room against half as many women, a ratio admittedly not improved by the large number of journalists tracking the MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.
When two of the women present said that they never cleaned behind their fridges, a reference to one of the many such flubs in Mr Bloom’s magnificent back catalogue, reporters’ ears pricked up. “This place,” Mr Bloom cried, “is full of sluts!”
There was a laugh. Good old Godfrey, this is the party of free speech, and he was using the archaic meaning of “slut” as a bit messy, obviously. Anyway, Godfrey took his place at the back of the room – at one point he stood next to Neil Hamilton, so if you half-shut your eyes the only way to tell them apart was by the disgraced Conservative’s walking stick – and enjoyed a glass of champagne. Then he made an early exit. On the steps outside, the hacks, led by Michael Crick of Channel 4 News, duly got stuck in.
Mr Bloom didn’t remember the “sluts” remark, he said at first. When it did come back to him, he pointed out that everybody had laughed. “I don’t know where you’re trying to go with this,” he said. “I think people don’t understand the difference between the words ‘slut’ and ‘slag’,” added an optimistic aide, who may have been starting to think of the “Bongo-Bongo” business as the good old days.
One reporter kept calling Bloom Mr Godfrey, a quaintly deferential piece of phrasing brilliantly calculated to wind him up. “You sad little man,” Mr Godfrey glowered.
Then Crick got back into it, asking what he made of the fact that among the many members on the cover of the Ukip conference brochure – tagline: Changing the face of politics – there wasn’t a single black person. For some reason, this was what sent Mr Godfrey over the edge. “What a racist comment that is,” he boomed, his voice dripping in satire. He grabbed the programme from Crick and started jabbing at it manically. “How dare you. That’s an appalling thing to say. You’re picking people out for the colour of their skin! You disgust me! Get out of my way!” And he set off down the pavement.
This was, alas, not the end of the matter. Pressed on the subject, he concluded that the only sensible option was to whack Crick on the head with the brochure, a gesture so comical and yet delivered with an expression of such unmistakable fury that it was hard to comprehend. Then he flung it to the ground. His increasingly flustered-looking aide bundled him into a taxi. Passers-by wanted to know what was going on. “That wasn’t Neil Hamilton, was it?” someone asked.
If Mr Bloom was determined to keep a low profile, he had a funny way of going about it. A few minutes later, he had materialised on the steps of the main conference venue. Then a protester in a wheelchair wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt appeared and made his way relentlessly towards him.
Suddenly it became apparent that he was holding one finger under his nose as a moustache and raising the other arm in a Hitler salute. “Nazis!” he shouted. “You are Nazis!” One of the press officers milling around visibly blanched, and Mr Bloom was ushered away. “I really can’t deal with this,” he muttered, mostly to himself.
Still, he kept himself busy, jovially asking BBC Newsnight’s Allegra Stratton whether her mother had ever called her a slut, for example. As Godfrey made the best of things, his poor aide dashed about the place, phone clamped to her ear. She tried to evade the protester by going down the steps, but got waylaid by Stratton on the way, and by the time she reached the bottom he had raced around on the wheelchair ramp to meet her. I asked her if she would tell me what her name was. “No,” she spat, barely breaking stride. “I’ll give you my army number if you like.”
After all that, Mr Bloom’s actual address was remarkably lacking in colour. The real drama was going on outside, where Nigel Farage was changing his tune. This is, I suspect, the first time that a party spokesman has been given the boot as he makes his speech. That’s Ukip for you, I guess: a breath of fresh air from somewhere beyond the pale.
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