Nigel Farage bounded down the aisle as dance music thumped out of the speakers, a camera operator hot on his heels and the live video projected onto a big screen above the stage. The Brexit party leader — slimline, tanned, his hair slicked over, poppy in place — jumped onstage as swooping images of the crowd on their feet, cheering wildly, were now flashed onto the screen. “Do I detect some enthusiasm?” Farage roared, sending the overwhelmingly white, middle-aged audience into a frenzy.
This was pro-Brexit campaigning, 2019-style. And it had all the hallmarks of the rallies held by US President Donald Trump, Farage’s friend and ally. Farage was launching his party’s general election campaign in Westminster’s Emmanuel Centre, a spectacular high-domed auditorium complete with wooden pews and biblical quotes that had long been the venue of choice for the campaign events for the UK Independence Party. UKIP was, of course, the party Farage led for the best part of 10 years. But he doesn’t like to mention that too much now.
Gone are the shambolic events of the past (who could forget UKIP Scotland’s eyebrow-raising manifesto launch in 2017); now the revamped Brexit party is aiming for professional, slick, electrifying events that leave the crowd wanting more. Of course Farage attracting attention is nothing new; loyal supporters have always been drawn to his no-nonsense, pro-underdog, antielitist language. But Monday’s event proved he is taking it up a notch; this was the Hollywood version.
The party was unveiling more than 600 general election candidates who will stand across the country in a direct threat to prime minister Boris Johnson’s pro-Brexit Conservative party. Many Tories are furious about the move, warning that the Brexit vote will be split, letting Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn through the middle and lessening the chance of Brexit happening altogether.
Journalists initially queued outside, on a Westminster side street, as anti-Brexit campaigners draped in EU flags screamed into loudspeakers. “You can shove your Brexit up Farage,” one of them sang, happily and very loudly.
Reporters were then ushered up some stairs into the press seating off to the side, presumably so they didn’t get in the way of the videos being prepared for a potentially viral social media clip. A pocket of journalists resolutely sitting down in the middle of countless standing ovations probably would have spoiled the effect.
Hundreds of the Brexit party’s election candidates filled the hall, decked out in the party’s colour of light blue — some with rosettes, others clutching official party merchandise: a scarf here, a golf umbrella there. There were a lot of men. Richard Tice, chair of the party, kicked off the event with a warm-up speech. He was instantly surrounded by press photographers, while several camera operators roamed the hall for footage of the crowd getting excited.
It wasn’t all about Brexit, Tice said. The House of Lords should be abolished, and the “dodgy, corrupt, fraudulent” postal voting system needs reform! Not only that, but what about our rubbish that we put out to be recycled? It ends up being sent overseas, burned, buried, thrown into the sea! Tice knows this because his son saw it with his own eyes on the beaches of Vietnam — “piles of plastic with Tesco on it”.
Things had taken an interesting turn, but the crowd was undaunted and clapped wildly. They may as well have stayed on their feet the whole time given the number of standing ovations; it would have been easier on the thighs. Finally it was time for the man himself. After a short glossy video, an X Factor–style voiceover rang out: “Welcome to the stage — Nigel Farage!”
The audience was still applauding as Farage ramped up the adrenaline, shouting over the noise that these candidates didn’t “care what the mainstream media say”, they represented the 17.4 million people who voted Leave in the referendum. That was not the only reference to the media in his speech. Like Trump’s “fake news” narrative, this was about lumping journalists in with the hated establishment: the UK Parliament that “blocked Brexit”, the European Union that won’t let us leave on our own terms.
Eventually Farage signalled for calm, and the crowd took their seats again. “Life can be tough, life can be difficult. And I’m guessing you, our PPCs [prospective parliamentary candidates], have, over the past week or two, begun to receive a little bit of abuse,” he said to affirmative murmurs. “Good! I’ve had 25 years of it.” The crowd laughed.
And then the boos began. Farage said the main parties had “completely turned their backs” on the promises made to the British people during the EU referendum. Here are the choices people can make in the upcoming general election, he said.
They can vote Liberal Democrat (“Boooo!”) who want to “cancel the result of the referendum”. They can vote Labour ("Booooo!") who want to “negotiate a new deal with Brussels, put it to the public in a referendum, and then campaign against the deal they have just negotiated”. (Laughter.) They can back the Conservatives who have got a deal that “doesn’t get Brexit done — all it does it take us into another three years of agonising negotiations with, yes, you’ve guessed it, [EU Brexit negotiator] Michel Barnier". (“Boooo!”)
Then it was the turn of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg to be cast as the villain. “He says we should stand aside for the Conservatives!” said Farage, aghast. "What kind of conceited arrogance is this? Without the Referendum party in the ’90s on the euro, without UKIP forcing them into giving a referendum, and then the Brexit party, they will never deliver Brexit. I say this to you: There will be no Brexit without the Brexit party.”
He warned that Johnson’s Brexit deal could actually prevent trade deals with the rest of the world, rather than make it easier. In reference to his recent interview with Trump for radio station LBC, Farage added: “In fact, in America, a friend of mine was chatting about that this week...” — there was a slight pause here for knowing laughter from the crowd — “... and I’m sad to say he was right! It is not Brexit; it is a sellout.”
Farage ended by explaining why he wasn’t standing to be an MP himself. “Instead of fighting to get myself in … it’s more important that I will fight and win for all of you. I’m going to be up there supporting you!” he said to more cheers. There was no mention of him standing unsuccessfully for Parliament seven times (so far).
After the speeches, Farage went into the crowd for photos with the candidates, many with their thumbs up, brandishing a sign with the Brexit party’s election slogan: “Change Politics for Good.”
“We’re going to ask the journalists to leave now,” Tice said. “I’m sure they will write good articles!” A few minutes later, Farage headed to the room next door for clips with the BBC and ITV. He gave a three-minute Q&A to print journalists in which he said his offer of an alliance with the Tories was over.
“I’ve given up on all that now,” he said. “They’ve been so bloody rude. What’s the point? Jacob [Rees-Mogg] thinks we should all stand aside. I mean, it’s ludicrous. Ludicrous.”
He was excited about kicking off his Brexit party general election tour tomorrow: “We’ll go all around the country!”
A party staffer said Farage’s rallies were always full of energy and passion, events that got people really fired up about big changes in the country.
The party is very keen to stress that its supporters apparently come from all political backgrounds. They are real people who are sick of being ignored and “politics as usual”, the source added. So...much like the voters Trump has targeted? “I’m not going to comment on that,” they said.