The will of the peo­ple

Three months on the road in hard-Brexit Bri­tain

The Guardian - Weekend - - Front | Contents - Pho­to­graphs by David Levene

Ahuge queue snakes around Bolton Wan­der­ers foot­ball club, but this is no reg­u­lar Satur­day. These sup­port­ers are here for a po­lit­i­cal rally. It is mid-Septem­ber 2018, and Leave Means Leave has just started a tour of Brexit Bri­tain. This cross-party pres­sure group was formed in 2016 to en­sure a “clean Brexit” – in other words, a hard one. Now, with Brexit look­ing any­thing but clean, it has de­cided to step things up. Half a dozen ral­lies have been an­nounced, and the or­gan­is­ers prom­ise this is only the start.

Out­side the ground, peo­ple stand next to an open-topped Leave Means Leave bat­tle bus to take selfies. Its colour scheme echoes that of the Euro­pean Union flag, but with an ex­tra fizz – blue and or­ange, in­stead of blue and yel­low. The rally is sold out and takes place in a con­fer­ence cen­tre ad­join­ing the sta­dium. It is packed with more than a thou­sand peo­ple, most of them mid­dle-aged and el­derly. On ev­ery seat, there is a lit­tle wel­come pack for those who have paid their £5.98 to at­tend: a Stop The Brexit Be­trayal ban­ner, a Be­lieve In Bri­tain pen, a union jack flag.

Leave Means Leave’s chair­man, John Long­worth, is the for­mer di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Bri­tish Cham­bers of Com­merce, while its founder and vice chair, Richard Tice, is CEO of the as­set man­age­ment group Quid­net Cap­i­tal. They make for im­pres­sive front­men – Long­worth with his record in busi­ness, Tice with his Dr Kil­dare good looks. Long­worth tells the au­di­ence that, wher­ever he has worked, he has had a di­rect link to Brus­sels. “I knew more than most peo­ple how the Euro­pean Union worked. I knew what they were up to, and that’s why I voted to leave.”

But no­body is here to lis­ten to him. “Ladies and gen­tle­men, the next per­son needs lit­tle in­tro­duc­tion,” Tice be­gins. “He is one of the orig­i­nal Brex­i­teers. He has slowly but surely changed the course of Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal his­tory, and he, with­out ques­tion, will go down as one of the most sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal fig­ures in the last 50 or 60 years… He has sur­vived plane crashes that would have killed most peo­ple be­cause he is a true pa­triot, ladies and gen­tle­men!”

Nigel Farage walks down the cen­tre of the room and it feels as if the sea has parted. He holds his hands aloft as the faith­ful roar him on, a mes­siah with­out port­fo­lio. While he has never been an MP, it is hard to ar­gue with Tice’s propo­si­tion that he is one of Bri­tain’s most in­flu­en­tial politi­cians. At a time when rightwing pol­i­tics are sweep­ing the world, Farage is the clos­est thing we have to a Don­ald Trump, Vik­tor Or­bán or Jair Bol­sonaro – a pop­ulist in­sur­gent. In 2016, while the main­stream par­ties en­cour­aged the Bri­tish pub­lic to re­main in Europe, he mo­bilised 17.4 mil­lion peo­ple to vote leave. Now, after two years away, Farage has re­turned to the front­line – and he is fu­ri­ous that the “po­lit­i­cal class” is try­ing to thwart the will of the peo­ple. If he is de­nied the Brexit he spent a quar­ter of a cen­tury bat­tling for, where will he take the fight next?

When he speaks, Farage makes it clear that his is a re­luc­tant re­turn. He could be mak­ing squil­lions in the City, or break­ing bread with Trump, rather than ad­dress­ing the Brex­iters of Bolton. “I didn’t think we’d have to do this again,” he tells the crowd. “I thought we’d won on June 23 2016, in what was the great­est demo­cratic ex­er­cise in the his­tory of this na­tion. We voted to leave, and I thought our politi­cians would de­liver. Well, they haven’t. So you know what, we’re back and we’ll fight them again!”

Two days be­fore the rally, Don­ald Tusk, pres­i­dent of the Euro­pean council, posted a pho­to­graph on In­sta­gram of him­self of­fer­ing Theresa May a se­lec­tion of cakes, ac­com­pa­nied by the cap­tion: “A piece of cake, per­haps? Sorry, no cher­ries.” It was a ref­er­ence to an ear­lier speech he had given, ar­gu­ing that the prime min­is­ter could not cher­ryp­ick areas of the sin­gle mar­ket as Bri­tain leaves the EU. Farage is apoplec­tic about this slight, which he sees as typ­i­cal of the ar­ro­gance of the EU. His mes­sage is sim­ple: no Euro­crat has the right to ridicule a Bri­tish prime min­is­ter, how­ever in­ept.

He takes us back to the great­est day of his life. “Let’s re­mind our­selves what ac­tu­ally hap­pened on June 23 2016, what hap­pened de­spite the big po­lit­i­cal par­ties, de­spite the big com­pa­nies, de­spite the big banks, de­spite big global pol­i­tics, in­clud­ing of course Pres­i­dent Obama com­ing to our coun­try” – “Boooo!” shout the crowd – “to tell us what we should do. De­spite the threats of dis­as­ter. Do you re­mem­ber? From Ge­orge Os­borne there was go­ing to be an emer­gency bud­get… They al­most told us that if we dared to vote leave, a plague of black lo­custs would de­scend on our land. And de­spite all those threats, we voted to leave. We voted, folks, for in­de­pen­dence.”

He says it is now up to Leave Means Leave sup­port­ers to en­sure that Brexit is not be­trayed. “The vast ma­jor­ity of our politi­cians want to di­lute it, sus­pend it, over­turn it. And one or two for­mer se­nior politi­cians like Tony Blair” – “Boooo!” “Lock him up!” – “do not want to give us Brexit.”

Farage fo­ments the crowd with con­sum­mate skill. As he reaches a cli­max, ev­ery word be­comes a sen­tence. “With Mrs May’s Che­quers plan, the very best we would get is Brexit. In. Name. Only. And. That. Is. Not. Good. Enough. Is it?” It may be pan­tomime, but his anger is vis­ceral. The lan­guage is clever and de­lib­er­ate. Like his friend Trump, Farage is care­ful to dis­tance him­self from the po­lit­i­cal class. He might still be a mem­ber of the Euro­pean par­lia­ment, but he is not One of Them. He is here to fight for the Ev­ery­man and the Every­woman, strug­gling to make them­selves heard in a world dom­i­nated by glob­al­i­sa­tion and lib­eral elites.

In June 2016, Farage was less sub­tle. He posed in front of that no­to­ri­ous Ukip poster with the slo­gan Break­ing Point: The EU Has Failed Us All, show­ing hun­dreds of refugees, most of them non-white, cross­ing the Croa­tia-Slove­nia bor­der in 2015. The poster was re­ported to po­lice for in­cit­ing racial ha­tred, and even Farage’s fel­low Brex­iter Michael Gove said it made him “shud­der”. →

Nigel Farage walks down the cen­tre of the room and it feels as if the sea has parted. He holds his hands aloft as the faith­ful roar him on, a mes­siah with­out port­fo­lio

Since then, Farage’s frame of ref­er­ence has be­come more coded. Blair, Obama, the BBC, London: he doesn’t need to say much more than this to gen­er­ate a boo from his fol­low­ers – just the name, the in­sti­tu­tion, the city is enough. It’s dog-whis­tle pol­i­tics on a new level, although the crowd oc­ca­sion­ally give him away: at a men­tion of London, an au­di­ence mem­ber heck­les, “They’re all for­eign­ers in London!”

Now 54, Farage is in many ways a throw­back to a Bri­tan­nia that ruled the waves, when men and women were ad­dressed as ladies and gen­tle­men, and prej­u­dices were hid­den be­hind tight smiles. There is a ni­hilis­tic sen­ti­men­tal­ity to his pol­i­tics; his Bri­tain is one where we still hap­pily smoke our way to can­cer and drink our­selves silly be­fore lunch – be­cause no bloody bu­reau­crat, least of all a Euro­pean, is go­ing to tell us what’s good for us. But be­neath the pa­triot-next-door per­sona, Farage has changed in many ways – in his lan­guage, his al­liances, his sta­tus across the world. As Ukip has be­come in­creas­ingly ir­rel­e­vant (membership was down from 39,000 in July 2016 to 23,600 in Au­gust 2018), Farage’s global in­flu­ence has grown.

His friend­ships now cross con­ti­nents, but they tend to be with white, male, rightwing pop­ulists: Trump, Steve Ban­non or Hun­gary’s prime min­is­ter Vik­tor Or­bán. Last April, Farage tweeted his sup­port for Or­bán, who has been ac­cused of Is­lam­o­pho­bia and an­tisemitism, calling him “the strong­est leader in Europe and the EU’s big­gest night­mare”. The pair share an an­tipa­thy to­wards the Jewish Hun­gar­ian in­vestor and phi­lan­thropist Ge­orge Soros, who has given away much of his vast for­tune through the Open So­ci­ety foun­da­tion, “to build vi­brant and tol­er­ant democ­ra­cies”. In June, Farage told Fox News: “Soros is ac­tively en­cour­ag­ing peo­ple to come across the Mediter­ranean, to flood Europe… Thank good­ness Vik­tor Or­bán and Hun­gary have got the con­fi­dence to stand up against him… If you crit­i­cise Soros, his me­dia friends ac­cuse you of be­ing an an­ti­semite. It is quite ex­tra­or­di­nary. I re­ally feel that Soros in many ways is the big­gest dan­ger to the en­tire west­ern world.”

Today’s rally in Bolton is com­ing to an end, and Tice asks ev­ery­body to wave their flags and plac­ards, and to make as big a noise as pos­si­ble. “Stand up and let the world see that we be­lieve in Bri­tain, and we want to stop the Brexit be­trayal!” The room cheers as one.

“God bless Great Bri­tain!” shouts a voice from the back of the hall.

I start to feel self-con­scious. “Aren’t you go­ing to wave your flag?” says the man next to me.

On the way out, I meet a woman dressed in flo­ral pinks and pur­ples. Joan John­son was chair of Bolton Ukip, un­til she de­fected back to the Tories after Bri­tain voted to leave; like many Ukip mem­bers, she felt the party had served its pur­pose. But she’s still a Farage fan. Is he Bri­tain’s great­est pop­ulist politi­cian? “Yes, I think he is.” What does it mean to be a great pop­ulist? “It means he’s a good leader. He’s very out­spo­ken, and he tells the truth. He is pop­u­lar and he is pop­ulist, in that he’s a leader of the peo­ple.”

“He’s not a typ­i­cal politi­cian,” adds Diane Parkin­son, John­son’s friend and an­other for­mer Ukip ac­tivist. “There’s no diplo­macy, no sit­ting on the fence. He’s an out­cast.” Farage has this in com­mon with other suc­cess­ful pop­ulists – an abil­ity to por­tray him­self as the out­sider: lit­tle David with a fag in one hand and a pint of bit­ter in the other, kick­ing out at the all-pow­er­ful Go­liath.

Bolton is an eth­ni­cally di­verse city; in 2011, 20% of its pop­u­la­tion did not iden­tify as white Bri­tish. Yet ev­ery­body here today ap­pears to be white. “Yes, I no­ticed that,” John­son says, be­fore adding that there is no ten­sion be­tween the city’s white and Asian pop­u­la­tions. She does not be­lieve re­la­tion­ships be­tween Bolton’s Asian and Euro­pean mi­grants are as har­mo­nious. “A lot of the In­di­ans and Pakistanis have their own busi­nesses and they work hard at it. But then you’ve got your peo­ple from east­ern Europe com­ing in, per­haps also want­ing to set up busi­nesses, and there are fights.”

“Too many cul­tures,” Parkin­son says. “The east­ern Eu­ro­peans saw an op­por­tu­nity to come over. I’d do the same. It’s all about sur­vival. They’re tak­ing low-paid jobs, but the Bri­tish peo­ple don’t want those low-paid jobs be­cause they’ve got the ben­e­fits sys­tem to fall back on.”

On the bus back to Manch­ester, I meet Alexa Michael, a Con­ser­va­tive coun­cil­lor for Beck­en­ham in London. “Nigel says what a lot of or­di­nary peo­ple are think­ing but are too fright­ened to say,” she tells me. “He’s got the com­mon touch, even though he’s got quite a posh back­ground. It’s no sur­prise that peo­ple in Bolton, the old mill towns, what you might call work­ing-class areas, were more in­clined to vote leave than some of the more pros­per­ous areas.”

And yet the Bolton au­di­ence more closely re­sem­bled her – smartly dressed, very mid­dle class – not the work­ing-class vot­ers we are of­ten told Farage ap­peals to. It’s a week later, and the bat­tle­bus has moved on to Birm­ing­ham’s National Con­fer­ence Cen­tre. Again the event is sold out and the 1,000-strong crowd is ev­ery bit as white and grey as Bolton’s. A dozen miles away, the Con­ser­va­tive party is hold­ing its an­nual con­fer­ence. “I want you to make a big noise today,” Long­worth tells the au­di­ence, “not least be­cause we want those peo­ple down the road to hear you.”

Tice takes over, to drum home the pur­pose of the meet­ing. “We know why we’re here, don’t we? We want to send a very sim­ple mes­sage that they should just Chuck Che­quers.” Chuck Che­quers; No Deal? No Prob­lem; Leave Means Leave: the leavers have both the sim­plest ar­gu­ments and the strong­est sound­bites.

He makes a joke about the bat­tle­bus. “We had such fun de­cid­ing how big a num­ber we were go­ing to put on the bus.” This is a ref­er­ence to the £350m Boris John­son em­bla­zoned on his Vote Leave bus, the sum we were meant →

I talk to two women in the au­di­ence. ‘There are too many cul­tures in Bolton,’ one says. ‘The east­ern Eu­ro­peans saw an op­por­tu­nity to come over. I’d do the same. It’s about sur­vival’

to be sav­ing on EU membership and spend­ing on the NHS ev­ery week (he had not ac­counted for re­bates, grants and sub­si­dies). “I was all for putting ‘Save £39bn’!” Tice says. He pauses to let the au­di­ence laugh. “Un­be­liev­ably, I was out­voted – but I be­lieve in democ­racy.” Thirty nine bil­lion pounds is now the an­tic­i­pated Brexit di­vorce bill.

Con­ser­va­tive MP Peter Bone takes to the stage. He talks of the hor­ror of be­ing at the mercy of Europe. “We didn’t fight world wars…”

“No more Ger­man cars!” shouts a mem­ber of the au­di­ence.

“… to be sub­servient,” Bone con­tin­ues. “We want to make our own laws in our own coun­tries... The thing that an­noyed peo­ple enor­mously was, when we make laws they’re not judged by our own judges, they’re not de­cided in our supreme court – they’re de­cided some­where in Europe by a bunch of judges, half of whom are not qual­i­fied any­way.”

“No, they aren’t,” cries a woman at the back.

This might be Mar­garet At­wood’s Gilead; you would fear for the safety of those Euro­pean judges were they here today.

Bone does a de­cent job of whip­ping up the anger, but he knows he’s only the warm-up act. “I think there’s some­one else,” he says.

“Mr Brexit!” calls a voice in the crowd.

“Nigel Farage! Mr Brexit, as some­body says at the front.” Bone gets his big­gest cheer, and Tice takes over for the already fa­mil­iar in­tro­duc­tion. “The vil­i­fi­ca­tion, abuse, threats to his fam­ily, what he’s put up with is un­be­liev­able. His courage man­i­fested when he was un­for­tu­nately in a very se­ri­ous plane crash on one elec­tion day. It would have killed many peo­ple. Bless him: he dragged him­self out, wiped away the odd bit of blood, dusted him­self down and promptly lit a cig­a­rette. He is a true pa­triot. He is pos­si­bly the orig­i­nal Brex­iter.”

Again the sea splits for Farage, and again he looks more spiv than saviour. There is a touch of Pri­vate Walker, the black-mar­ket wheeler-dealer in Dad’s Army, whose ab­sence from the reg­u­lar armed forces was ex­plained by a corned-beef al­lergy. “Good af­ter­noon, Birm­ing­ham,” he be­gins. “I’ve given the best part of my adult life, bat­tling, fight­ing, cam­paign­ing for one thing – that we, the Bri­tish peo­ple, should be masters of our own des­tiny, run­ning our own lives, in con­trol of our own coun­try. And. That. Ref­er­en­dum. On. June. 23rd. When. We. Won. That. Vote. Was. The. Hap­pi­est. Day. Of. My Life.”

Farage has an ad­van­tage over many politi­cians in know­ing how to make his au­di­ence laugh. “We were told by the party lead­ers that what­ever we de­cided they would abide by,” he says. “In­deed, do you re­mem­ber Mr Cameron?” “Boooo!” comes the cat­call.

“That’s sur­pris­ing, be­cause most of the coun­try has for­got­ten about him!” There is laugh­ter across the room.

“Mr Cameron spent £9m of tax­pay­ers’ money putting that out­ra­geous leaflet through ev­ery door in the land.”

“Shame! Shame!” Cameron is heck­led in ab­sen­tia.

“How I en­joyed post­ing mine back through the let­ter­box of No 10,” Farage con­tin­ues, “with a few suitable an­no­ta­tions, but not ones I am go­ing to share with you on a pub­lic plat­form.”

Then he’s back on the at­tack. “Now we are told that we didn’t un­der­stand what we were vot­ing for. You. Are. All. Thick. And. Pig. Ig­no­rant. They even have the ef­fron­tery to tell us that peo­ple were lied to – de­spite the fact that the great­est lie of all was told back in the 1970s, when my par­ents’ gen­er­a­tion were told they were join­ing noth­ing more than a com­mon mar­ket which was about friend­ship and free trade. Even if Boris’s fig­ures on the side of a bus were a bit on the high side, it is noth­ing to the half a cen­tury of lies we have been told by the es­tab­lish­ment.”

Farage’s ar­gu­ment here is straight­for­ward. The ref­er­en­dum was noth­ing to do with the terms of leav­ing, and no­body thought it was; we were sim­ply asked whether we wanted in or out. He even at­tempts to claim the moral high ground when it comes to the mi­gra­tion ar­gu­ment. The EU, he states, is su­prem­a­cist. Why should some­body from Europe have more right to live in our coun­try than, say, some­body from Africa or Asia? It’s the only line that is not met with a re­sound­ing cheer.

But by the time he is done, calling on the au­di­ence to stop the Brexit be­trayal, they are chant­ing for more. Lynne, a friendly, mid­dle-aged woman who has been shar­ing her Po­los with me, is on her feet. I ask her why she feels so strongly. She talks about the need for sovereignty, to be able to make our own laws and re­claim our pride. Is it any­thing to do with im­mi­gra­tion? “No,” she says. “Not re­ally.” She pauses. “But Birm­ing­ham isn’t as clean as it used to be. Is it? They leave their fur­ni­ture in the street.” Who – the Eu­ro­peans? “No, the Mus­lims. There are areas that are pre­dom­i­nantly Mus­lim. I’m not racist. They’re not to blame. But they don’t love our coun­try like we do. They put mat­tresses in the street. They all drive nice cars, mind – Mercs and BMWs. And then they’ve got their rub­bish piled up.” She of­fers me an­other Polo.

I look for Farage, but the man of the peo­ple has done a dis­ap­pear­ing act. The last time we met, in 2009, he took me to his lo­cal pub for break­fast (three pints of Land­lord), told me his po­lit­i­cal hero was Enoch Pow­ell, and talked with pride of his Ger­man wife Kirsten and his love of a good lap­dance club. But the more renowned this pop­ulist be­comes, the less ac­ces­si­ble he is; Farage de­clined to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.

Mean­while, the less starry mem­bers of Leave Means Leave are happy to talk. I ask Peter Bone what pop­ulism means to him. “Doesn’t pop­ulist mean what most peo­ple want?” he says.

Long­worth comes up with a sim­i­lar def­i­ni­tion. “It’s to do with be­ing pop­u­lar among peo­ple, so if pop­ulism means we’re ac­tu­ally sup­port­ing peo­ple’s demo­cratic rights, I’m all for it.”

As the au­di­ence leave, I scan the hall for some­body who looks a bit →

The EU, Farage states, is su­prem­a­cist. Why should some­body from Europe have more right to live here than some­body from Africa or Asia? It’s the only line not met with a cheer

younger, and spot Jared Day. He is in his 20s, and a wheel­chair-user. Day is a smart, en­gag­ing man who voted re­main but has since be­come a leaver. Why? “The EU’s lack of re­spect. I thought the photo that Don­ald Tusk posted was very dis­taste­ful.”

Un­like many politi­cians, Day has no prob­lem ex­plain­ing why pop­ulism means much more than be­ing pop­u­lar. “Pop­ulism is more about na­tion­al­ist lines, the na­tion state. When you hear about pop­ulist gov­ern­ments, they tend to be more in­ter­nal-look­ing, al­most iso­la­tion­ist.”

Con­tem­po­rary pop­ulism is by its na­ture op­po­si­tional. In his 2016 book The Pop­ulist Ex­plo­sion, a study of how the great re­ces­sion shaped US and Euro­pean pol­i­tics, au­thor John B Judis dis­tin­guishes be­tween left- and rightwing pop­ulism as fol­lows: “Left­wing pop­ulists cham­pion the peo­ple against an elite or an es­tab­lish­ment. Theirs is a ver­ti­cal pol­i­tics of the bot­tom and mid­dle, ar­rayed against the top. Rightwing pop­ulists cham­pion the peo­ple against an elite that they ac­cuse of favour­ing a third group, which can con­sist, for in­stance, of im­mi­grants, Is­lamists, or African-Amer­i­can mil­i­tants. Rightwing pop­ulism is tri­adic: it looks up­ward, but also down upon an out group.” This feels very much the Leave Means Leave ap­proach.

On my way out, I catch two pairs of sis­ters chat­ting. Like Day, their youth makes them stand out. Jill and her sis­ter, who does not give her name, are wear­ing Brexit sweat­shirts, while two iden­ti­cal twins, who also won’t give their names, are for­mally dressed in skirts and jack­ets; they could be ex­tras for a film about the suf­fragette move­ment.

Jill is a chem­istry teacher from Sh­effield who says she wants Brexit for her pupils. She be­lieves there will be more money for them when we leave, and they will have a bet­ter chance of get­ting de­cent jobs. One of the twins also teaches, and is look­ing for­ward to a brighter fu­ture. All four women tell me they de­spise the main­stream me­dia, par­tic­u­larly the Guardian, be­cause it is a pur­veyor of fake news. What they dis­like most is the no­tion that they must be ig­no­rant or big­oted to have voted leave. The twins take up Farage’s theme, fin­ish­ing each other’s sen­tences.

“They de­monise us…”

“… And make out we’re re­ally stupid…”

“… That we don’t know what we voted for…” “And I think that’s dis­gust­ing.”

Jill, who is wear­ing union jack train­ers, says: “De­monise is the ex­act word. I so ob­ject to that. I’m not far right or racist. And that, I’m afraid, is the me­dia.”

The women talk about wages be­ing un­der­cut by EU work­ers, how hard the trade unions have fought for the min­i­mum wage, the need for con­trolled mi­gra­tion and to look after our own.

As for the no­tion that Bri­tish peo­ple don’t want many of the jobs the Eu­ro­peans do, Jill is not hav­ing any of it. “Ab­so­lute rub­bish,” she says. “That’s like say­ing the kids I teach are lazy. They’re not. They want a job and can’t get one, be­cause it’s been taken by some­body from the Euro­pean Union.”

All four women sing from the same hymn sheet, de­spite com­ing from op­po­site ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum. “The main thing that got me into pol­i­tics was the mag­nif­i­cent pa­triot Nigel Farage,” Jill says. The twins are Cor­bynistas, dis­mayed that the Labour leader has sup­pressed his anti-Europe in­stincts.

The con­ver­sa­tion leaves my head spin­ning; in some ways, left and right seem an ir­rel­e­vance in Brexit Bri­tain. Per­haps that’s why some Labour MPs have been happy to align them­selves with Leave Means Leave. Yet look more closely and you re­alise that the group is not as cross-party as it would have us be­lieve. All six mem­bers of its ad­vi­sory board are white, male Con­ser­va­tives. Of the 25 MPs it names as sup­port­ers on its web­site, 24 are Con­ser­va­tives or mem­bers of the DUP. The one ex­cep­tion is the in­de­pen­dent MP Kelvin Hop­kins, who was suspended from the Labour party in 2017 after it was al­leged he sex­u­ally ha­rassed a lo­cal ac­tivist. (He has de­nied the claims.) Of the 44 prom­i­nent mem­bers pic­tured on Leave Means Leave’s web­site, all are white and 43 are men; An­drea Jenkyns, the Con­ser­va­tive who suc­ceeded Ed Balls as MP for Mor­ley and Out­wood, is the only woman. It’s a Tuesday night in Oc­to­ber and we’re in Bournemouth, which voted to leave Europe by a mar­gin of 9%. Like the other events, tonight’s rally is sold out. Be­fore the speak­ers start, the au­di­ence is shown a film about how in­tran­si­gent the EU has been in ne­go­ti­at­ing Brexit. The nar­ra­tor asks: “When we asked for co­op­er­a­tion on se­cu­rity, the boys in Brus­sels said Non! When Mrs May of­fered flex­i­bil­ity on Labour mo­bil­ity, the boys in Brus­sels said Non! Mrs May even of­fered them more of our money, and this time the boys in →

I speak to four women who tell me they de­spise the Guardian, as a pur­veyor of fake news. They dis­like most the no­tion that they must be ig­no­rant or big­oted to have voted leave

Brus­sels said they wanted more! The UK has con­sis­tently of­fered the boys in Brus­sels huge con­ces­sions yet it is never enough for these un­ac­count­able Euro­crats who, let’s re­mem­ber, spend an aw­ful lot of their time… drunk.”

On the screen, a car­toon ine­bri­ated Euro­crat top­ples over, and the crowd cheer. Al­co­hol is a re­cur­ring theme tonight. JD Wether­spoon boss Tim Martin was due to make an ap­pear­ance, but he has gone down with a tummy bug, so we are played a video of him ad­dress­ing a rally in Torquay the pre­vi­ous week in­stead.

“Lord Bam­ford, Sir James Dyson, Tim Martin… have you no­ticed how all the great en­trepreneurs are Brex­iters?” John Long­worth says. “Tim set up a chain of al­most 1,000 pubs.”

“And Nigel’s drunk in most of them!” heck­les a man in front of me af­fec­tion­ately.

Tice has per­fected his in­tro­duc­tion over the past month. “He is pos­si­bly the orig­i­nal, truest Brex­i­teer!” he be­gins.

“He should be prime min­is­ter!” cries a voice from the front.

Tice tells the story of Farage’s he­li­copter crash, this time leav­ing a gap for the au­di­ence to ap­plaud each heroic act. “It would have killed many peo­ple, but not our good friend. He dragged him­self out of the plane, wiped away the blood from his head, from his eyes, dusted him­self down… ” “Hoorah!”

“Put his hand in his pocket... ”

“Hoorah!”

“Reached out for a packet of cig­a­rettes and lit a fag.” “Hoooooor­raaaaah!”

Farage be­gins with a hum­ble­brag. “Good evening, Bournemouth. I’m go­ing to take issue with the deputy chair’s in­tro­duc­tion. I’m not the orig­i­nal Brex­i­teer. That was Henry VIII.” He ap­pears to be in a jovial mood. “My day started when I got off the bat­tle­bus in Christchurch. I went round Christchurch mar­ket, and I met some stall­hold­ers and mem­bers of the pub­lic, and then it all went wrong.” Pause. “We found a pub.”

This is Farage the sea­side standup, and the au­di­ence lap it up. “The day after the ref­er­en­dum, there was an emer­gency de­bate in the Euro­pean par­lia­ment. I thought I’d bet­ter show up, you know, ’cos I’ve worked quite hard over there. I’ve al­ways tried to make pos­i­tive and help­ful con­tri­bu­tions. And there wait­ing for me was Euro­pean com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Jean-Claude Juncker, who came up, put an arm round me, and said… ‘Bas­tard!’”

The hall erupts. Then Farage flips the mood. “I said to them, ‘That morn­ing when I came here, 17 years ago, I said I would lead a cam­paign to take the United King­dom out of the Euro­pean Union, and you laughed at me. Well,’ I said, ‘you’re not laugh­ing now, are you?’”

And sud­denly Farage flips again; now he’s mo­bil­is­ing his troops. “This is the most im­por­tant cam­paign that has ever been fought in Bri­tish his­tory. This. Cam­paign. Is. About. Right. And. Wrong. We are sim­ply ask­ing our politi­cians to do what they promised.”

There was a time, he says, when he trusted May when she said that no deal was bet­ter than a bad deal. “She kept on telling us Brexit means Brexit, but lit­tle did we know that she is a woman who is too weak to ne­go­ti­ate with the Euro­pean com­mis­sion.” He pauses. “I’d much rather we sent some­one like Trump, per­son­ally!” The au­di­ence ap­plauds.

Now it’s time for strat­egy, as Farage tells sup­port­ers how to con­front MPs. “I don’t want you writ­ing let­ters to them. Go and visit them at their surg­eries, queue around the block, meet them face to face, make them feel the heat, make them un­der­stand that be­ing part of a cus­toms union, be­ing a vas­sal state with laws made some­where else, is un­ac­cept­able. And that if they do this, you will never give them your vote again. Make. Them. Feel. The. Heat. We in Leave Means Leave are re­ac­ti­vat­ing the peo­ple’s army.”

The lan­guage is tough and mil­i­taris­tic, and Farage’s delivery chill­ing. He warns that if he is forced to fight a second ref­er­en­dum we’ll see a very dif­fer­ent Farage: “This time, no more Mr Nice Guy.” I can’t help think­ing back to his vic­tory speech after the ref­er­en­dum, de­liv­ered at 4am on 24 June 2016. Farage boasted that Brexit had been achieved “with­out a sin­gle bul­let be­ing fired”. It was only eight days after the strongly pro-EU Labour MP Jo Cox had been mur­dered on her way to a con­stituency surgery. Her killer, Thomas Mair, shouted “Keep Bri­tain in­de­pen­dent”and “Bri­tain first” as he shot and stabbed her. But Farage ap­peared to have for­got­ten that.

On 13 Novem­ber, Theresa May an­nounces that the UK and the Euro­pean Union have reached an agree­ment; the next day the Cabi­net signs off on the deal. Leave Means Leave or­gan­ises a protest out­side Down­ing Street. On 15 Novem­ber, Brexit sec­re­tary Do­minic Raab is one of four min­is­ters to re­sign amid calls for the prime min­is­ter to step down.

Bri­tain re­mains grid­locked; West­min­ster is in chaos and yet noth­ing changes. On 10 De­cem­ber, the day be­fore the Com­mons is due to have its say on the deal, May an­nounces the vote will be de­layed. The fol­low­ing day Gra­ham Brady, chair of the 1922 Com­mit­tee, an­nounces that the thresh­old has been reached for a vote of no con­fi­dence in the prime min­is­ter; at least 48 let­ters have been sub­mit­ted by Tory MPs. Although May sur­vives, win­ning by 200 votes to 117, she ap­pears to have as lit­tle chance of get­ting her deal through the Com­mons as she did be­fore.

Mean­while, there is a sim­i­lar up­heaval in Farage’s world – rev­o­lu­tion lead­ing to sta­sis. On 22 Novem­ber, Ukip leader Ger­ard Bat­ten an­nounces that he has ap­pointed far-right ac­tivist and for­mer EDL leader Tommy Robin­son as a spe­cial ad­viser on “rape gangs” and prison re­form. In an in­ter­view on →

The lan­guage is tough and mil­i­taris­tic, and Farage’s delivery chill­ing: ‘I don’t want you writ­ing to MPs. Queue around the block. Meet them face to face. Make them feel the heat’

BBC Ra­dio 4’s Today pro­gramme, Farage says he is “ap­palled”, that Ukip is be­com­ing a party of “street ac­tivism”, and that Bat­ten has sab­o­taged his own ef­forts to make Ukip “a non-racist, non-sec­tar­ian party”. This is the same Farage who mas­ter­minded the Break­ing Point poster; the same Farage who talked only days ago about mo­bil­is­ing a peo­ple’s army. On 4 De­cem­ber, he an­nounces that he is quit­ting Ukip “with a heavy heart”: he has lost his bat­tle to “pro­fes­sion­alise” the party he helped found in 1993. But the truth is, he has out­grown Ukip. Its once marginal voice is now main­stream, and Farage has big­ger po­lit­i­cal fish to fry.

It is 14 De­cem­ber, and all the big guns are out for the Leave Means Leave rally at the Queen El­iz­a­beth II Cen­tre, op­po­site the Houses of Par­lia­ment. Ja­cob Rees-Mogg, JD Wether­spoon boss Tim Martin, the DUP’s Sammy Wil­son and, of course, Farage, line up to de­liver the same mes­sage – No Deal? No Prob­lem – only with more ur­gency. There is a new chant: “Let’s go big­ger than Europe. Let’s go Global. Let’s Go WTO.” In­con­sis­tency ap­pears to be a virtue for this pop­ulist cam­paign; glob­al­ism is now pre­sented as a pos­i­tive rather than a neg­a­tive.

Tonight, the two Labour MPs who have spo­ken at pre­vi­ous ral­lies, Kate Hoey and Gra­ham Stringer, are on the same bill, giv­ing the event a more gen­uinely cross-party feel. But there is noth­ing di­verse about the au­di­ence, and the white­ness is, if any­thing, even more stark than at pre­vi­ous ral­lies – not least be­cause nearly ev­ery se­cu­rity of­fi­cer on the door is black.

This is the first rally held in the heart of re­main-land – London – and the mood is darker, more de­fi­ant. There is a sense of the bat­tle lines hard­en­ing: only two days ago, chan­cel­lor Philip Ham­mond de­scribed hard Brex­iters as “ex­trem­ists”.

Tonight, all six speak­ers have the knack of be­ing able to in­cite the crowd or make them laugh – even the an­te­dilu­vian Rees-Mogg, dubbed the hon­ourable mem­ber for the 18th cen­tury. Hoey asks how we can trust the gov­ern­ment to take us out of the EU when it is led by a prime min­is­ter who is a re­mainer, a chan­cel­lor who re­gards Brex­iters as ex­trem­ists and a Speaker “who has a Bol­locks to Brexit sticker on his car”. Tim Martin con­cludes his speech by quot­ing Paul Si­mon (“You just slip out the back, Jack/Make a new plan, Stan/You don’t need to be coy, Roy/Just get your­self free”). Puce-faced Sammy Wil­son de­liv­ers a barn­storm­ing union­ist speech (“The EU is de­mand­ing the price for leav­ing is split­ting the United King­dom. Never!”) and says that not even Arthur Da­ley would have had the brass to flog the Che­quers deal to the Bri­tish pub­lic.

As al­ways, though, Farage is the star turn. He makes the fa­mil­iar jokes about booze, dis­misses the “jumped-up for­eign bu­reau­crats” of Brus­sels, and de­scribes the Italian gov­ern­ment (which has scrapped hu­man­i­tar­ian pro­tec­tion sta­tus for asy­lum seek­ers) as “rather splen­did”. But this is a more muted, re­strained Farage. He ad­mits he is wor­ried.

“I’m afraid, folks, I don’t see the great Brexit be­trayal as any­where near fin­ished. I’m now more fear­ful than at any time I have been dur­ing this process that, out­ra­geous and mon­strous though it is, we’re go­ing to fin­ish up be­ing sent back for a second ref­er­en­dum… My mes­sage, folks, is it would be wrong of us not to get ready, not to pre­pare for the worst-case sce­nario… Let us be ready not just to fight back, not just to be ready for that ref­er­en­dum, but if it comes we’ll win it next time. By. A. Much. Big­ger. Ma­jor­ity.” Back in Jan­uary 2018, Farage sur­prised ev­ery­one by calling for a second ref­er­en­dum, on the grounds it would de­liver a big­ger leave ma­jor­ity. But it was a clas­sic Farage blip, and he has never called for one since. Last Au­gust, he dis­missed the idea as “not the peo­ple’s vote, but the Ge­orge Soros vote”.

After his speech in London, Farage is mobbed. A hud­dle forms around him, com­prised mainly of the few young peo­ple in the au­di­ence. A woman in her 20s, draped in a union jack, asks for a selfie. Her friend, also draped in a union jack, pushes her way for­ward. “Ex­cuse me, see­ing as I got her these tick­ets, the least you can do is give me a kiss,” she says to Farage.

This is the clos­est I’ve been to him in three months of fol­low­ing the Leave Means Leave cam­paign – within shout­ing dis­tance. So I do just that. Ear­lier this evening, some­one in the au­di­ence asked who peo­ple should vote for, now that Farage has quit Ukip. The ques­tion went unan­swered, so I ask again. “Nigel, who should we vote for?”

“Who asked that?” he says.

“I asked that,” I bel­low, deep within the bo­som of the Farag­is­tas.

He looks at me.

“Well, let’s find out, shall we? At the mo­ment I couldn’t vote for any­body. But let’s see how this plays out. The cards haven’t fallen yet. I meant what I said tonight. All the Euroscep­tics are hop­ing we’re go­ing to get through this, but I’m ac­tu­ally more pes­simistic.”

Do we need to mo­bilise? “Yes. When you build an army, you don’t do it want­ing to fight a war. But if a war hap­pens, you’ve got it. And that’s what we’ve now got to do.” And with that he’s off, flanked by two se­cu­rity men.

I shout one of his own slo­gans after him as he walks away. “Nigel, no more Mr Nice Guy?” He turns on his heels, walks back and looks me in the face. For once there isn’t a hint of a smile. “Oh lis­ten. Lis­ten. If they make us do this again, I shall be a bit tougher than last time.”

This ar­ti­cle forms part of the Guardian’s on­go­ing se­ries, The new pop­ulism; read more on the­guardian.com

This is the first rally held in the heart of re­main-land – London – and the mood is darker, more de­fi­ant. There is a sense of the bat­tle lines hard­en­ing

Leave Means Leave sup­port­ers at ral­lies in Bournemouth and London last year. Above and right: cam­paign front­men Nigel Farage and Ja­cob Rees-Mogg at the London rally in De­cem­ber

At­ten­dees at a Bournemouth rally in Oc­to­ber; a wel­come pack in­cludes a union jack flag

Ev­ery rally is sold out; in Bournemouth, a warm-up film shows a drunk Euro­crat top­pling over

Au­di­ence mem­bers on their feet in Bournemouth:‘This is about right and wrong,’ says Farage

A sup­porter in London last month, two days after the chan­cel­lor calls hard Brex­iters ‘ex­trem­ists’

A stew­ard in Bournemouth car­ries union jack bal­loons

Farage is mobbed by sup­port­ers after speak­ing in London; he tells the crowd he is ‘fear­ful’

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