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Ukip surfs the rising tide of protest in South

Nigel Farage's party lost two of its MEPs to scandal, but it doesn't seem to matter in the stockbroker belt, Andy McSmith reports

Nigel Farage looks every bit as eccentric as you would expect the leader of the UK Independence Party to be.

Dressed in a dark pinstripe suit on a balmy day on Caterham High Street, in the heart of the Surrey stockbroker belt, Mr Farage bounces down the street touting for votes.

But this energetic, extroverted man has gone a long way towards clearing out the racism and nastiness that lurked on the fingers of UKIP, when The Independent appropriately described its members as "the BNP in blazers".

Mr Farage thinks that phrase did more damage to his party than any other, even more than David Cameron's famous outburst, when he described UKIP's members as "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly".

Others misfortunes have beset UKIP since their spectacular success in the European elections five years ago, when they secured 12 seats in the European Parliament. They have parted company with three of their 12 MEPs, for different reasons. The best known, Robert Kilroy Silk, was not a team-player and set up a rival organisation. Ashley Mote was jailed for nine months for benefit fraud. He has lodged an appeal. And Tom Wise has been charged with fraud and false accounting.

Not long ago, it seemed that internal rifts and assorted scandals had almost finished UKIP, but now it is back, with one weekend poll suggesting it could beat Labour in the election on Thursday. This revival owes much to Mr Farage's reassuring brand of quintessential middle-class Englishness.

His father was a well-known character in the Stock Exchange, one of the last of that breed who went to work daily in a pinstriped suit with a rolled-up brolly and bowler hat. The only reason Mr Farage did not follow him into the City was that he did not want to live in his father's shadow, so he made his pile in the more congenial and noisier London Metal Exchange.

He is as extroverted as his father must have been. One year, when Barbados was hosting the Test series, Farage descended on the islands, kitted out with pith helmet to spend five days sitting among the islanders, drinking and absorbing the day's play, looking – to quote his own description of himself – "like the captain of the Barmy Army".

Mr Farage has said time and again that UKIP will not tolerate racists in its ranks. He never utters a word that sounds aggressive or threatening and proudly boasts that UKIP now has candidates and volunteers from the ethnic minorities. He leads a party which would pull up the drawbridges, ban foreigners from entering the country and make sure that foreign politicians from Brussels or anyone else on the Continent can no longer make laws that apply in the UK – but it would do it all in the politest possible way.

His message is what a lot of the shoppers in Caterham wanted to hear.

"I was for UKIP right at the very start, but then I wavered," said Mary Trowbridge. "There was something I didn't quite like on the fringes. Extremists, I think I'd call them. They were using the cause for their own ends." Now she believes those extremists have been seen off and is returning to UKIP.

Dave Makiah, who met Mr Farage in the street, is a retired, Labour-voting NHS nurse who immigrated from Mauritius in the 1970s. He would "certainly" vote UKIP.

Mr Farage said: "A lot of ethnic voters are very positive about our immigration message. They are the ones who sense that vast numbers of Poles and other East Europeans coming are unsettling for race relations. I don't think anybody believes there is a racist message in UKIP."

In the two hours he spent approaching shoppers, Mr Farage came upon people who identified themselves as having been Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat or BNP in the past, but who were all switching to UKIP.

One woman said she had planned to vote BNP but was switching to UKIP, apparently because they give voice to her prejudices in more acceptable language. Another, who gave her name but asked for it not to be used, said she was a Liberal Democrat voter "through and through" said that she was "seriously considering" voting UKIP.

Audrey Hoy, another switcher to UKIP, said: "I've voted Labour all my life, and I'm 81, but I'm fed up with what's going in the country. There are no jobs." Rosalind Chute, from Croydon, is a decorator who normally votes Tory. "We have traditions that make this country special, and they are all being swept aside. I feel that no one is supporting the English, or England as we lose all our laws to Europe," she said. "Not David Cameron – he just wants to be pals, 'call me Dave.' I'm English and I'm proud to be English. Let's keep the country as it is."

Mr Farage also approached a white-haired man in a pinstripe suit every bit as smart as Mr Farage's. He was Peregrine Lavington, a Conservative parish councillor. Despite their party differences, the two men quickly found things on which they could agree – the money wasted by Brussels, how difficult it is to discuss immigration as a political issue without being accused of racism, and so on. Though he did not persuade the councillor to switch votes, Mr Farage made a good impression.

"I am a loyal Conservative voter, but it's quite clear that [Farage] is going to benefit from the public disillusionment," Mr Lavington said.

A loyal Labour voter told Mr Farage "If you don't do well now, you'll never do well", and Mr Farage agreed. So do the opinion polls. When the votes are counted, one story to emerge will doubtless be the resurgence of UKIP. Mr Farage has made his party a safe repository for a certain kind of protest vote.