Nigel Farage sips his pint of Spitfire, tugs on a Rothmans and looks me in the eye. “Obviously it was unfortunate,” he says. “I was put personally in a tough position – he’s a mate, I’ve known him a long time. Did it stop us from getting out more positive messages? Yes. I think there was a lost opportunity.”
We’re in the dying moments of the UK Independence Party’s 2013 conference in Westminster, and the party faithful have gathered in the pub for a pint and a debrief. I’m called a “poofter” for drinking Japanese beer, but by this point I’m used to the Ukip sense of humour.
Even by their chaotic standards, the past 48 hours have been turbulent – the party’s intended coming-out bash after record local election results has been marred by then-defence spokesman Godfrey Bloom’s now-notorious ‘sluts’ comment, and his subsequent bopping of Channel 4 newsman Michael Crick with the party’s own conference programme.
Bloom’s swift booting was a sign that Farage wants to play serious now. But are these really the people David Cameron once derided as “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists”? Watching them eat their supermarket lunches in Parliament Square earlier, looking for all the world like the nation’s grandparents on tour, it was hard to think so. But when the second word your website is forced to use to describe the party is ‘non-racist’, and you’re the only party that needs to explicitly ban former BNP members from joining, there does seem to be at the very least an issue of perception.
Flash-back two days, and it was clear even on the conference’s first morning that this would be no normal political pow-wow. There’s a man who’s a dead ringer for Colonel Sanders, and another seemingly dressed as a crow. However, aside from the obvious eccentrics, the attendance is different to other parties’ gatherings. There are more Alan Partridge-style blazers than a Hampshire rotary club, the average age of delegates hovers comfortably north of fifty, and it’s so white it makes the Last Night Of The Proms look like Notting Hill Carnival. Of course, many people I speak to hurriedly refer to prominent minority members such as Amjad Bashir and Winston McKenzie, but the reality is that black and Asian Ukippers are underrepresented.
Farage later explains the reason behind the lack of Asian faces supping pints with the party hardcore is that the Muslim members “don’t like pubs very much”.
The Ukip pattern to these accusations is quickly observable – a denial, either of racism or xenophobia, then a metaphor on immigration, often involving either overcrowded swimming pools or sold-out cinemas. “We’re not xenophobic,” says Dr David Bushby, resplendent in blazer and white ’tache. “There is finite space in this country, we’ve got huge unemployment, and we’ve got these people coming here and doing all the jobs.” Former parliamentary candidate Frances Fox, quizzed about a lack of non-white faces in the auditorium, asks me, “How do you know they’re not Polish? They’re all white.”
In The Thick Of It
Whether or not you think the party’s image issue is the chicken or egg, Ukip members do have a habit of sticking their feet in their mouths – and that’s before we even get to Godfrey Bloom. One candidate was embroiled in a Nazi salute controversy, and just last month spin doctor Gawain Towler referred to Asian journalist Kiran Randhawa as “from some form of ethnic extraction” in a leaked text.
However, when a truly dodgy character is found, the party leadership is swift to bin them. They’re hardly losing master political communicators, and if there are some bozos on the ground, they emphatically have a player at the top. Farage’s keynote speech – met with real rock-star adulation – was by far the conference’s main draw as he spent 40 minutes pushing his adoring crowd’s buttons. He’s a master speaker, understanding pace and dynamics better than Cameron, Miliband and Clegg combined.
That said, after classily singling out Romanians as to blame for 92 per cent of ATM crimes in London, he claims: “More people settled in this country in 2010 than came here for the previous 1,000 years.” In reality, according to the Office For National Statistics, 591,000 people came here in 2010, and in 2006 alone 596,000 came.
Still, the assembled Ukippers meet the speech’s end with a roar of joy. Things are soon to change, however, when Bloom’s antics go public in one of the closest times life has ever come to The Thick Of It. Most of the delegates clearly aren’t on Twitter, so it takes time for the news to percolate. “Christ, what a tw*t,” says one man, while another earnestly informs me he believes Michael Crick is part of a conspiracy in the media out to discredit the party.
Either way, Bloom’s domination of the coverage runs contrary to Farage’s efforts to boot out the nuttier members of the party, so by the end of the day he’s been deprived of the party whip – ie will no longer speak for them as an MEP. It shows a new willingness to cave to media pressure from the party that prides itself on freedom of speech and there’s no avoiding the fact it became the story of the conference, rather than the planned confirmation of the party as a serious force.
And yet even beyond Bloom, this is still a party where a former Westminster candidate will tell me things such as “John Major destroyed this country when he introduced Sunday trading”, and Paul Oakley, a prospective MEP candidate, will merrily reveal “climate change policy leads to fuel poverty – elderly people die over the Christmas period because they can’t afford their fuel bill. The Green Party are nan killers.” Comments like these would have plenty of right-thinking people spluttering into their flat whites, but that’s the point. Bloom may stick in the craw, but one look at the Westminster Arms after the conference, and you can see what kind of world he came from.
This isn’t the calculated professional-politics sphere of full-contact waffle. The atmosphere is more golf club AGM than Nuremberg rally. At one point, I light a cigar the size of my forearm for a Ukipper, there’s a merchandise stand flogging ‘The EU Is Not My Bag’ totes, and several people show me pictures of their grandchildren. It’s the world of banter, nicknames and being a good egg, while grumbling about petrol prices, taxes on fags and people in That London – if this is the reactionary right, it’s Uncle-Jack-after-a-brandy rather than Hermann Goering. Whether its mooted key role in the 2015 general election comes to pass remains to be seen. But let’s leave the last word to Farage himself: “I think Ukip is the most eclectic party in the country.”
He was standing outside a pub overwhelmingly filled with old, white men.
(Image: Rex Features)