(Bloomberg Opinion) -- To understand why Theresa May's Brexit deal has foundered and she is under such pressure to resign, you could do worse than visit Britain’s West Midlands. As Nigel Farage's populist road-show swept through Wolverhampton last week, it was easy to see his upstart Brexit Party is building a future for itself beyond this week's European election. Neither the Conservative nor Labour party know what has hit them.
Farage is due to address a crowd in a large hall in this Labour-voting area with high levels of deprivation. His message: his party will take Britain out of Europe without a deal. No deal is the best deal for Britain.
Outside, at a counter-protest led by a group of Labour activists, the B-word doesn’t get a mention. Their placards note Brexit only obliquely, or not at all. One says “Labour Campaign for Antifascist Milkshakes.” (McDonalds has stopped selling milkshakes around Brexit Party rallies after they were thrown at candidates – including Farage himself.)
“The Labour Party didn’t want this to be about Brexit,” explains one protester as we walk toward the event. “It’s an anti-Fascist, anti-Trump rally.” You get why: Wolverhampton voted overwhelmingly to leave the European Union and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time euroskeptic, needs those votes too.
For nearly three years, the Brexit drama has seemed to take place in London – in long-winded speeches, debates and votes at the House of Commons – or else in Brussels. But Wolverhampton, and other English towns like it that voted to leave, is where the battle to reshape British politics is being fought.
“No one is quite clear”
The milkshake sign had been transported, along with others, from the small yard behind Beverley Momenabadi’s home in a new development outside Wolverhampton. Momenabadi, a local Labour councillor dressed in leggings and a t-shirt, perches on the living room floor, while a group of fellow activists, also in their 20s, spread out on the large L-shaped sofa before the rally to chat about what brings them there.
“This is the only place you’ll hear Brexit mentioned openly,” Momenabadi warns me. “No one is quite clear on what Corbyn’s position is.”
Their real wish is to talk about the issues that brought them into the Labour Party – failings in the education system, skills shortages, homelessness and widespread deprivation. But, like Corbyn, they can’t avoid the elephant in the room – Farage is riding it and breaking everything in his path.
Corbyn isn’t expected to support Prime Minister Theresa May’s final attempt to get her Brexit bill passed sometime next week, but he appears to be moving closer to backing a second referendum; who can really tell? The fence-straddling may be good politics, but it doesn’t play well here in Wolverhampton.
“We talked to people around the local elections and a lot of people were telling us they aren't voting Labour anymore,” says Miya Jhamat, a university student who comes from a Labour-supporting, working-class family.
Pat McFadden, one of three Labour MPs in the Wolverhampton area and a prominent remain supporter, has seen the problem first-hand too. Much now depends on how Corbyn steers the party, he says.
“Labour has a big choice about whether it essentially wants to go along with a nationalist view of what the future should be, or whether it wants to stick by its better traditions of offering answers rather than simply magnifying grievances,” he tells me. “That is contested territory.” He should know: Corbyn removed him from his job as shadow Europe minister.
Inside the conference center where the Brexit Party is holding the rally, the talk is of high altitude stuff – of trust and betrayal and democracy, but not policy. Brexit is mainly used as an invocation, a cue to a reaction.
The candidate list, meticulously curated to be diverse, is weighted toward self-starters and entrepreneurs. There is some minor star power on the list – Martin Daubney, a coal miner’s son and former editor of the lad magazine Loaded; Nikki Page, a former model, entertainer, executive and Tory activist. Each takes turn warming up the crowd, recounting personal journeys and going through the messages. The party is “not about left or right, but about right and wrong,” the candidates incant.
Last night, Farage completed his whirlwind tour of nearly two dozen towns and cities in the run-up to the European parliamentary elections. Each speech, like the one I heard, is ruthlessly on message – there isn’t a whiff of ideology. Instead, there is an oleaginous refusal to be pinned down on any issue other than the loss of trust in mainstream politics and the need to leave the European Union without a deal. There is no mention of immigration; not a morsel for those milkshake-wielding opponents who would call them racists or xenophobes.
“As frustrating as it is, we are focused on the EU elections on 23rd May and not able to discuss policy until after that date,” Katharine Harborne, a Brexit Party candidate, explains apologetically before the event.
Harborne, an environmental scientist and entrepreneur who was once a Conservative Party councillor in London, is the only of the seven speakers I listened to last week who gives a sense of what matters to her beyond Brexit. She was recently told by her oncologists that she is winning her 20-month battle against breast cancer, having previously been given two years to live. Go take a holiday, the doctor ordered. Instead, she applied to be a Brexit Party candidate.
“On the 29th of March I felt enraged and betrayed when Theresa May delayed Brexit,” she writes in an email. “It was utterly humiliating to see the U.K. prime minister begging unelected bureaucrats in Brussels for an extension.” Even so, two issues are bigger to her than Brexit: the climate emergency and health care, especially the fight against cancer.
I wonder how much her priorities match those of Farage. Brexit has serious implications for health care in Britain: the National Health Service has a shortage of more than 100,000 essential staff; more than 5% of health and social care workers come from other EU countries, a proportion that has grown over the years. Charity Cancer Research U.K. has warned of the impact of Brexit on the supply of medications and billions of pounds in European research funding is at risk.
It says a lot that someone who has been through what she has is running for a party that wants a no-deal Brexit. Doesn’t that worry her, I ask Harborne as the hall clears after the speeches.
“It does,” she acknowledges. There is silence for a brief period, and then she is cheery again. “The world is a big place,” she notes, before talking about the advances in cancer treatments in the U.K.
She would also like to see a state of climate emergency declared. Farage has previously been skeptical of some climate science and opposed the Climate Change " in the 2015 general election. Now, he won’t be drawn on the subject.
Farage’s genius is that he understands that the mobilizing issue for Harborne and all those who come to his rallies isn’t so much Brexit anymore. It’s about what they see as a betrayal: the threat that the referendum vote may not be honored. It has become a euphemism for trust or, as Harborne notes, a sign that Britain’s democracy isn’t fit for the 21st century.
“Fruitcakes and loonies”
Farage is on a different level from the warm-up speeches when he takes the stage, a Premier League goal-scorer on fire, though it must be said that he has enjoyed a wide open target so far.
Farage has turned professional since his previous incarnation as head of the U.K. Independence Party, once described by former Prime Minister David Cameron as a grouping of “fruitcakes and loonies.”
His new grouping owes much to Italy's Five Star movement, with its digitally-centered, web-based politics. By design, it is more a company than a political party – one with no members, just paid-up supporters. That, Farage says, facilitates decision-making. But watching him work a crowd, one gets the sense it would hardly matter if the structure were a kibbutz instead.
Like Donald Trump, attacks on media bias form a prominent part of his message. When the BBC’s Andrew Marr tried to question Farage on his past policy positions, he simply denounced the questions as ludicrous. When challenged by journalists about his party’s funding, or its sudden throng of Twitter followers, he accuses them of bias and of being jealous of his success.
His particular skill lies in channeling anger without heaviness. He cracks himself up sometimes, asks questions, answers them, needles and jokes. He shows his audiences how to laugh at the establishment, mock it and dismiss it; he makes them feel they are recovering their dignity.
He reminds me not so much of Trump, but of Bill Clinton in his ease and fluidity. It’s like he’s talking around a bar stool, addressing each of his listeners in an intimate gathering.
“I thought she meant it”
Gary Anderson, a paralegal from Wolverhampton, is one of the few non-white faces I see at the rally. As we are talking, Farage rushes by and, before I could say anything, Anderson thrusts out his hand – “Nigel!” – and Farage shakes it with a smile, without breaking his pace.
I think of the Labour activists protesting outside and ask Anderson if he feels the Brexit Party is racist. No, but immigration is on his mind. The 49-year-old says his family are from Jamaica. “I felt the law here discriminated against my people in favor of European immigrants to the U.K.”
He is one of the 2.8 million people who voted for the first time in 2016. For him, Brexit was a vindication. “I felt democracy works,” he says. “I felt the establishment was ‘remain’ and we defeated it. I put the British flag outside my window.”
In 2017 he voted again – this time for May, who had promised to deliver Brexit. “I thought she meant it.” He says he will now just vote for the Brexit Party.
I ask him, as I did everyone I met, what he thought the economic implications of Farage’s no-deal Brexit would be. Some answered that there would be some temporary costs, but Britain would soon benefit. People mentioned the Commonwealth a lot, as does Farage. Anderson thought even that was too pessimistic. “I believe on day one we'll be better off,” he said. “Britain can recruit from across the world.”
Farage is the king of grievance politics and Wolverhampton is fertile ground. Singled out in Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, it has been a proud manufacturing center for 300 years. Now it is a petri dish of the socioeconomic problems that face the country as a whole and have left British politics gridlocked.
Birmingham and the Black Country, which includes Wolverhampton, have some of the lowest employment rates in the whole of England, according to a study this year by the New Policy Institute. Almost one in five people in working families in the region are in poverty. But two of the biggest manufacturing centers in Britain are on the doorstep: JCB, the maker of mechanical excavators, to the north, and Jaguar Land Rover in nearby Solihull. Airbus U.K., too, isn’t far away.
Brexit would be a serious negative for the region and the hundreds of smaller companies that supply the components and sub-components to those larger manufacturers, says Ian Jackson, senior lecturer in economics at the University of Wolverhampton.
But that threat isn’t deterring the electorate. London has sucked the economic, political and cultural life out of the regions, and voters are looking for a way to protest the imbalance in the U.K. economy so evident in the Black Country’s lagging indicators.
That process is starting to redraw the political map, and long-held political alliances are now in play. In the run-up to the 2017 general election, May tried to appeal to Brexit-supporting Labour voters who felt left behind. While the Tories lost seats in wealthy, middle class, largely white areas of Birmingham, they gained them in poorer areas and in the Black Country. Farage now wants to occupy that territory.
According to a poll published on Sunday, almost nine in 10 Brexit Party voters say they would stick with the party in a national election. That sounds like an exaggeration in a country where the first-past-the-post system means Westminster has long been dominated by the two biggest parties. Even so, Farage shouldn’t be underestimated.
The Tories are likely to choose a hard-Brexit candidate to replace May as they try to stop voters fleeing to the Brexit Party. Labour’s McFadden suggests a second referendum still has an outside chance, but sounds pessimistic about its prospects now that the Tories are changing leaders. “No deal becomes more likely when the prime minister goes.” His own party’s leadership is getting blamed now too.
No wonder Farage is smiling. After the leader’s speech, Party Chairman Richard Tice reads out a set of vetted questions. One asks whether there is a risk parliament revokes Article 50 and cancels Brexit when the current extension ends on Oct. 31.
“If we were to end up with a total betrayal on that level,” says Farage, letting the idea sink in, “then the Brexit Party would win the next general election.”
The crowd cheer wildly. Farage has them – and both Britain's mainstream parties – just where he wants them.
--Elaine He and Sam Dodge contributed graphics.
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Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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