The man looking after media for the Brexit Party is called Gawain and he seems somewhat stressed. “I haven’t stopped for f***ing days,” he says. “It’s all go. Wales yesterday, Essex this morning, Scotland tomorrow. And everywhere, the whole world wants to speak to Nigel.”
He points to a corner of this windowless conference building in Willenhall, in the West Midlands, which will soon be filled with cheering, jeering supporters. The man himself – that’s Nigel Farage for the avoidance of doubt, although tonight his first name suffices – is surrounded by a scrum of journalists. Among them, here in this small Black Country town between Wolverhampton and Walsall, are reporters from two Japanese newspapers, a writer with The New Yorker and a Scandinavian camera crew.
Their subject is talking about the same things he has for 25 years: Brussels bureaucrats, self-interested elites, national humiliation, you know the gist. But more people than ever appear to be listening. “There’s a huge political shift happening, and the world is seeing that,” says Gawain – and, spin doctor or not, it is hard tonight not to feel he may have a point.
This is the latest in a series of Brexit Party rallies held pretty much twice daily across the country ahead of next week’s European elections. More than 1,200 people from all over the West Midlands have defied a small counter-protest outside to pack into this conference facility, just as they have been packing into old cinemas, football grounds and working men’s clubs across the UK over the past three weeks.
They are young and old, men and women, and come from the left and right of the political spectrum. And, if polls are to be believed, they are creating a movement that may be unmatched in modern British politics. Despite forming just five weeks ago, the party is set to win 35 per cent of the vote on Thursday. They will virtually wipe both the Tories and Ukip off the electoral map while taking first place in England, and second in Scotland and Wales, according to a YouGov survey released on Friday.
For now, the crowd at tonight’s event want to hear Mr Farage and all seven West Midlands MEP candidates – including former magazine editor Martin Daubney and ex-model Nikki Page – speak. That the party has no manifesto and just a single policy – to demand the UK leaves the EU on World Trade Organisation terms – appears not to concern anyone.
“I’m not bothered about other policies,” says carpet warehouse director Adrian Bromley who has came from Tipton to be here. “Before anything else, I want Brexit to happen. Then I want this corrupt two-party political system ended for good. It’s rotten. All our politicians do is look after themselves. They need sweeping out ... We need a Guy Fawkes right now.”
I suggest the reference is distasteful and am met with a shrug. “You asked me how I felt,” the 49-year-old replies. “Angry. I want the swamp draining.”
It would be wrong to misrepresent everyone in attendance as quite so vitriolic. Throughout the night, as each speaker takes to the stage, there is much booing for the likes of Theresa May (“traitor!”), David Cameron (“coward!”) and Nick Clegg (“who?”). But generally – to this writer at least – it doesn’t feel threatening. It has more than a slight element of panto about it. This is, in many respects, more show than political rally, complete with occasional chants – and the crowd enjoys it.
“People say this is an extremist party,” says Belinda Beale, a 46-year-old accountant from Walsall. “But I don’t feel that. If the British people were extremists, they would have carried on supporting Ukip. But that moved its position – it tarnished itself with racism – and people don’t want to be associated with that. But they do want Brexit. We got asked three years ago and we voted for it, so why is it still not being delivered?”
Her husband Ian Beale (yes, really) nods along. “We keep being told we didn’t know what we voted for because we’re idiots,” the 49-year-old crane operator says. “Believe me, I knew.”
This is a theme repeated throughout the evening: the belief that the democratic will of the people has been wilfully ignored and that the Brexit Party is the only way to correct this wrong.
“There is a robust internal conversation about future policies taking place,” Martin Daubney tells me, floating the scrapping of HS2, cutting income tax and increasing paternity leave as potential policies (although not mentioning an insurance-based NHS which Mr Farage has said he favours). But he adds: “Right now, the most important thing is enabling democracy. People voted in June 2016, and they want their voice to be heard. We’re here to ensure that happens.”
I mention the Guy Fawkes line and recall how Mr Farage has himself spoken of putting the fear of God into politicians. Is it appropriate language? “Why not?” he says. “This is how people speak. Real people. People in Wetherspoons where I go and on the streets. If politicians are scared of that language, they shouldn’t be representing these people because they clearly don’t understand them.”
I’m not convinced, but he has no time to debate. “Listen,” he says. “I need to go for a glass of wine before I’m on stage.”
On stage, as it goes, each MEP candidate keeps it short, sweet and detail-light. Katharine Harborne, an environmental scientist, talks about her battle with cancer and how it focused her mind to fight for what she believed in. Football agent Vishal Khatri riffs on his parents moving to the UK from India in the Seventies to follow their “British dream”. And – taking a slightly different tack – entrepreneur Andrew Kerr speaks about how much he likes floating currencies. People start to zone out for that one.
Possibly the biggest cheer of the evening goes to Laura Kevehazi. “This is our generation’s Battle of Britain,” she declares, a little improbably. Or, at least, that is the biggest cheer until Mr Farage takes to the stage to the kind of standing ovation generally reserved for winning sports teams.
“We’re being deceived,” he tells the crowd during his 10 minutes of oratory. “We’re being told to leave one European treaty, only to sign up to another one, which in many ways is as bad if not worse than the current arrangement. We are not going to accept it.”
As he speaks, he sees no apparent paradox in having a dig at old enemies (“Barnier's not elected, Tusk's not elected, and Jean-Claude Juncker after lunch has got no idea if he was ever elected to anything”) and labelling Theresa May a failed politician, while also calling his campaign “upbeat” and “positive”.
Wasn’t that a contradiction, I ask supporters afterwards? “Not at all,” says Owen Reed. “It was a great speech, funny and passionate.”
At just 19, the bar worker, who also helps run the party’s campaigns in the midlands, is probably one of the youngest in the room. “Yeah,” he nods. “They get me at the front for a lot of photos.”
Does he think the party can change politics for his own future, I wonder? “I’m certain,” he says. “This is a grassroots movement about the people getting what they voted for. This is just the beginning.”
As the international press contingency file out into the Black Country night, rushing for London-bound trains, it is, once again, difficult to shrug off the feeling that he may be right.
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