Booze, blazers - and bloody foreigners

To Europhiles, Brussels is a city of fine restaurants and elegant boulevards. To the new MEPs of the UK Independence Party, it's hell on earth. They invited Deborah Ross to see for herself why 'no one sane' would ever want to visit the Belgian capital
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The Independent Online

I am in a restaurant in Brussels. It's quite late, I think. I am with the United Kingdom Independence Party. Well, two of their European Parliament members, that is: Nigel Farage, MEP for the South East, a founder member and the one generally considered to be the driving force behind the party; and Graham Booth, MEP for the South West and a Torquay hotelier.

I am in a restaurant in Brussels. It's quite late, I think. I am with the United Kingdom Independence Party. Well, two of their European Parliament members, that is: Nigel Farage, MEP for the South East, a founder member and the one generally considered to be the driving force behind the party; and Graham Booth, MEP for the South West and a Torquay hotelier.

Nigel and I have already put back a few G&Ts at our hotel, and now we're getting through a bottle of white and a bottle of red. I can't quite remember what we talked about, although Graham's mother-in-law came into it. She was still chambermaiding at 88 - "So embarrassing, but she wouldn't stop" - and had recently died on the job. "That's the way she would have wanted to go," says Nigel consolingly. We get on to Jonathan Aitken, who may or may not be standing for UKIP at the next general election. "The more I see of him the more I like him," says Nigel. "And what he did wasn't that bad," says Graham. No, I say. He only perjured himself and tried to land his family in it. "Yes, there is that," accepts Nigel.

I put it to them that I can't understand why they get quite so worked up about certain issues, like the metric one. I mean, in the scale (ho, ho) of things, is it really something to fret about? There's a stunned silence. Then it's Graham, and: "What bra size are you?" I beg your pardon? "WHAT BRA SIZE ARE YOU?" Oh, shout it from the rooftops, why don't you, Graham? "WELL?" It's 34A, alas, I whisper meekly. "See? See?" he says: "The old measurement." Look, neither measurement is going to give me a less pitiful bust, so who cares? "It's the element of compulsion," says Nigel: "We don't want them to set the bloody rules." We order Armagnacs all round, then Nigel and I go back to our hotel. "Another drink?" he suggests. I don't think so, I say. "Oh, come on." Water, then. "Oh, come on." A glass of red, then. We sit up till 1am, maybe 2am. Nigel drinks a lot of beers. I don't drink my drink. I'm feeling queasy enough as it is. "Can I drink it?" Nigel calls after me as I stumble off to bed. Go for it, Nige, I slur. I have a mightily drunken dream about implants and huge knockers, which rather suit me. I would now say: spend any substantial amount of time with UKIP, and things will almost certainly get pretty surreal.

I'D FIRST talked to Nigel Farage the previous week, on the telephone. "I've just been in Brussels," he said. How nice, I said, thinking: "More restaurants than any other European city, and moules-frites and chocolates." No, not nice at all, he said. "It's a dump. It's just about the most hideous place on earth, I should think." Perhaps, I suggested, you could take me with you on your next trip? Apart from anything else ( moules-frites, chocolates) I would like to see how a party totally committed to withdrawal from the European Union and not much else (apart from blocking virtually all immigration) operates in the very belly of the beast. "Love to, love to," he exclaimed.

I was initially astonished by his enthusiasm. UKIP may now be the fourth-largest party in the country, with 12 MEPs, but the British press has not exactly been kind to them - "a rackety collection of con men, perjurers, convicted criminals and semi-racists" ( The Spectator). The press has hardly been kind to Nigel, either, always quoting Dr Richard North, a former UKIP research director: "I was not prepared to pour him [Nigel] into a taxi when he was so blind drunk that he could no longer stand, or cover for him when he failed to turn up for morning appointments when he had been on the tiles all night." Ouch!

Nigel, though, laughs happily, adding: "He now works for the Conservative Party, so what do you expect?" The other thing you quickly learn about UKIP MEPs is that if they were any thicker-skinned, they'd be rhinos. "We don't care what you write so long as you write about us," Graham says later. And if one particular member were more orange-skinned... non, ce n'est pas possible. Moules-frites, s'il vous plait. (Just practising.)

So, we meet early one morning on the Eurostar. I get on at Waterloo. Nigel joins at Ashford, Kent. He lives in Kent with his second wife, a German ("although you wouldn't know it from the way she speaks English") and their young daughter. I phone on the mobile to ask what carriage he's in and whether there are any spare seats nearby. "Of course," he says. "No one sane goes to Brussels."

I join him. He is 40 and looks like the schoolboy Tory activist he once was; that is, he probably had a centre parting and a suit and a crush on Keith Joseph - which, in fact, he did. "He came to my school [Dulwich College] and talked about lame-duck industries and government subsidies and why the free market was better and I thought, 'Yup.'"

Nigel, the son of a stockbroker, used to be a commodities broker on the metal exchange in the City of London: "Bloody good fun, particularly in the Eighties, although I can't remember most of it, ha!" Most of UKIP seem to be cheesed-off former Tories. It was the overthrow of Thatcher, says Nigel, then the Exchange Rate Mechanism and Maastricht. "I'll never forget drinking in Corney & Barrow in 1990 and seeing a newsflash on screen - 'Britain joins ERM' - and just thinking, 'This is loony.'"

He is, I note, wearing a silver £-sign pinned to his suit lapel. Well, you can't miss it, really. It is covered in hallmarks. "That's something else they want to destroy," he says, "hallmarks." Come now, I say, there are many things we can learn from Europe, surely. Naps after lunch, for one. I'd vote for those. He says his argument is simply this: "Do you think it's best that we are governed by people that we vote for in Westminster, or that we merge together with the other countries of Europe and we are governed from Brussels?" No chance of naps after lunch, then? "Ha! No!"

I don't think Nigel is a xenophobe as such. He loves Italy, for example, although I should add that he prefers America: "Everyone is just so positive there." I just think he, and perhaps his fellow UKIP-ers, have this imperialistic view of Britain as a still great and powerful nation which should be telling everyone else what to do, and anything else is a terrible insult. It may almost be a kind of nostalgic sentimentality. We don't want them to set the bloody rules. I think it may be the same with the anti-immigration business. This is our country. Everyone Else Go Home.

But Nigel, if you took immigrant workers out of the NHS, say, it would collapse. "That's because we have become over-reliant on them. I believe in our abilities," he says. One of Nigel's hobbies, by the way, is visiting the battlefields of the First World War. And, no, UKIP are not "the BNP in blazers". That's nonsense, says Nigel. "If anything, we have taken the sting out of the BNP."

You can't, however, simply dismiss UKIP outright. Or maybe you can. We shall see. Whatever, they have certainly moved from the amateurish Eurosceptic margins to rattling the cages of the political Establishment. They spent £2m on their recent European election campaign, including £100,000 on hiring the services of Max Clifford, the publicist, who basically told them to go out and get big names. So they did. The most notable were, of course, Joan Collins and Robert Kilroy-Silk. "The polls were showing us at 10 to 11 per cent before Kilroy. A week after he came on board, we were showing 18 per cent. People love him. Love him." Other UKIP "names" include Rusty Lee, Neil Hamilton, Geoffrey Boycott, Patrick Moore and Roy Wood from Wizzard, "who wants to stand for us". I think they have yet to learn that sometimes no names are better than some names. Still, if Roy campaigns for Christmas every day, I'm with him all the way. Count me in, Nige! "I will!" he replies.

We arrive in Brussels and take a taxi to the parliament building. "Ah, the cradle of democracy," he says as we enter. "Horrible, horrible, horrible place." It does appear rather soulless; like an airport, only without Tie Rack or planes. We bump into a Tory MEP. His conversation with Nigel goes like this:

Tory MEP: "Where is the perma-tanned one?" Nigel, chucklingly: "Guess?"

Tory MEP: "On holiday? In Spain?"

Nigel, still chucklingly: "Yup."

Tory MEP: "So that's what we are paying him for, are we?"

Nigel, with some hilarity: "He is coming to Strasbourg next week. He says he can hardly wait!"

Tory MEP: "Well, you've probably put Blair back into Number Ten. Thanks very much!" And he marches off. Shirtily.

Yikes, I say. That was scary. Nigel laughs, then says he doesn't mind being hated. "I've been booed by 500 people. We're like atheists at an evangelical meeting." And Strasbourg! What a joke! The voting procedure is such, he says, that "you could get 26 chimps to do the job". He wishes they would: "Then we could all piss off and play golf." Nigel, can you see the irony of being part of what you so desperately wish to disengage from? "Of course," he says, "and it appeals to my sense of humour."

Nigel does seem to be enjoying himself. He might, even, never have had such fun, not even in the City in the Eighties. But at whose expense? His, he would say. He used to earn three times as much as a commodities broker, and he has his three children (two from a previous marriage) at private schools. "We're on hard times. I do find the money aspect a bit difficult. I drive a 10-year-old Volvo." Still, no matter. It can't match the excitement of "building a new political party in Britain. Europe is the political issue of the age." He brightens up considerably. I doubt Nigel is ever particularly glum for long. Too much belief in himself. I might even describe him as racked with self-certainty, in that Kilroy-ish way.

We take the lift up to the seventh floor, to his office. His office is chillingly bare. Not a book, a paper, a picture, no family photographs, nor ones of Roy or Rusty. Nothing. I note, too, that the desk lamp not only still has its label hanging off it, but that * * it has no bulb. I don't think he's had many late nights here poring over documents. I ask why it's so bare, especially as it's his second term as an MEP. "I binned everything in April because I didn't know I was coming back," he says. I'm not so sure about that. How would he know he wouldn't be coming back? Perhaps it has something to do with not actually being here very much. In the last parliament, when it came to attendance, he was 554th out of 665. And he asked just one parliamentary question. He says he had a lot of problems to sort out back home. "The party was in terrible turmoil."

As it was. Alan Sked, the London School of Economics lecturer who founded the party in 1993 and was the first leader, left after some vicious infighting, while his successor, Michael Holmes, was dumped and then had a stroke. "I tried to phone him the other day," says Graham later, "but his wife said never to call again. It upsets him so." According to Sked, Nigel would refer to blacks as "niggers" and "nig-nogs". Rubbish, says Nigel, who refers to Sked as "demented". I'm sure there are serious and intelligent debates to be had about Europe and immigration. I'm just not convinced that UKIP is going to be the place for them.

Anyway, concludes Nigel: "I couldn't be here because I was travelling the UK to shore up the party." We are joined by Jeffrey Titford, fellow UKIP MEP and the retired funeral director known as the Frinton Undertaker. "We both had 75 speaking engagements in a year," confirms Jeffrey. "But we intend to do more here from now on," adds Nigel. But what, exactly? Why are we paying you £65,000 a year plus generous expenses? You can't really change anything, can you? No, agrees Nigel, they can't. "But we can report back from the inside. When I speak to a Rotary club, I do know what I'm talking about. There is a precedent for this. Parnell in Westminster. And we'll try to stop, block and obstruct in committees."

But surely that only leads to more delays, more bureaucracy, more expense? "Thousands of British businesses will cheer us," says Nigel. What if a measure is advantageous to Britain? None of them ever is, they say, because they are "integrationist". Jeffrey then says something about some kind of protest he mounted, which involved standing outside the parliament building with a gag over his mouth. "And the photograph made Have I Got News for You!" Nigel confirms that it did by saying: "It did! It did!" Surreal, like I said. Plus, I think if you asked them what they had thus far achieved, appearing on Have I Got News for You might count for something, if not quite a lot. The UKIP was once described as "8,000 members and 9,000 egos".

Nigel and Jeffrey go off for meeting after meeting: something about their political grouping for next year, an anti-constitution alliance based on a ragbag of dissenters. I grab a quick lunch with Nigel at one of the bars. Jeffrey goes to the proper restaurant on the 12th floor but comes back complaining that there isn't any food left. "It's the Eastern Europeans," says Nigel. "They can't get enough on their plates."

Surely, I say, the EU has to be good for the Eastern Europeans. Nigel is utterly aghast. "The Poles lived under Nazism and then Communism. Finally they get independent, and then they give it all away!" He is, he confirms, entirely opposed to any immigration from Eastern Europe. "It's crazy... it's going to do a lot of damage to the Baltic States and Poland as well. All their bright professional people will come over here because they can earn 12 times as much."

If that's the case, I say, then that's good for us, isn't it? "We are going to get some very good people, but we'll get both ends of it, won't we? We'll get a lot of just economic migrants who think they will get a better chance here. I think the numbers are going to be enormous over the next few years." I say I haven't noticed a deluge thus far, haven't found that I can't get down the shops for Roma Gypsies. He changes the subject and says: "Do you know that there are now 400 Jean Monnet professors, paid for by the EU, working in the UK teaching economics and history from a European point of view?" Is that a bad thing? "Is that a bad thing?" he gasps. "It took Stalin years to take over the universities!"

At about 7pm we leave the building. Nigel and I share a cab to our hotel. We go down a beautiful old boulevard. But this is beautiful, Nigel, I say. "Oh, some parts of Brussels are all right," he agrees, "but they have a terrible problem with the rubbish." At the hotel we agree to meet at the bar in an hour, "or earlier if you like. I'll be down in 10 minutes." I go down in an hour - a girl needs some time to herself in these situations - by which time he's well stuck into his G&Ts. Then it's off to the restaurant to meet Graham, who is rather jolly when he's not too busy getting upset about his mother-in-law. He has us in stitches about some committee that had to decide on how high a rocking horse should be for a three-year-old. UKIP might, in some ways, be a better laugh than most parties, but I suspect that, ultimately, they will be proved considerably less relevant. I'm not even sure quite how seriously they take themselves.

Then it's back to the hotel with Nige, who I think tells me all about the run-in he had with testicular cancer in his twenties and how he had to have a ball lopped off. (Thank God I don't dream about that.) Before I stumble up to bed, we agree to meet for breakfast at 8am. Amazingly, I manage to get down on time. I wait for Nigel. And wait and wait and wait. He doesn't turn up.