On Saturday Nigel Farage made a triumphant return to Nottingham, where, five years ago, when leader of UKIP, he was hit with an egg by a protester. Much has changed since, and now Farage is leader of the Brexit party, which was holding a rally at the city’s Albert Hall.
Beforehand Farage went on a walkabout in the town centre with a small band of activists carrying placards with the defiant legend “Fighting back”. Against whom? I asked one. “The government,” came the reply. Other answers included “the establishment”, “the political class” and “all of ‘em”.
In his double-breasted blue blazer and ever-ready grin, Farage looked, as he often does, like an excitable chairman of a crown green bowls club with his own security detail. This time there were no eggs, but there were a couple of hugs and a handful of selfies, provided not so much by ideological supporters as shoppers gratefully surprised to see someone off the telly.
There were, however, plenty of genuine supporters queueing outside the Albert Hall in the glorious afternoon sunshine. On the Jon Snow White-o-Meter it was most certainly a very white crowd, almost as white as the Extinction Rebellion. In fact it was a kind of near-extinction rebellion, with the majority of those in line eligible to have voted in the referendum on Europe – the first one, that is, back in 1975.
“I’m 90,” said Cecil Robinson, a well-preserved gentleman waiting to applaud Farage, a politician he rated as “excellent”.
Like some sleight-of-hand artiste, Farage has pulled the Brexit party out of his flat cap. One moment it wasn’t there. The next it was leading the polls for the European Union elections. It was set up by Catherine Blaiklock in January, but she had to resign when it emerged that, like so many before her in her previous party, Ukip, she’d written things that were not difficult to construe as racist.
Nelson, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Ian Botham, Nigel Farage - the people who put the Great into BritainGary Wilkinson, Brexit party supporter
Farage duly announced that the Brexit party would be “intolerant of all forms of intolerance”. And on stage he called for a greater “civility” in British politics, before going on to denounce local Nottinghamshire MP Anna Soubry as “dishonest” and “undemocratic”. The audience yelped its delight, with many of its members more animated than they had been at any time since Nigel Pargetter fell to his death in The Archers.
“Nelson, Winston Churchill, Margaret Thatcher, Ian Botham and Nigel Farage, they’re the people who put the Great into Britain,” said Gary Wilkinson, a retired railway worker.
The master of ceremonies for the rally was the new Brexit party chairman, Richard Tice, who wowed the crowd with boasts of multi-million pound companies with whom he’s been involved. Tice called for a more honest, common sense politics, but with his precision-coiffed hair and daytime TV presenter looks, he looked about as sincere as a cosmetic surgeon addressing a gathering of billionaires’ wives.
Sixty-nine-year-old Lynne Oldham told me that she felt that working-class Brexiteers like herself weren’t represented in parliament, but much to her excitement Tice introduced the new “capable, competent and common sense” breed of politician that the Brexit party would be promoting to “revive confidence in democracy”.
Step forward Annunziata Rees-Mogg, Brexit party candidate for the East Midlands, and someone whose existence was unknown a couple of months ago to 95% of those present, but whom they were now greeting with a standing ovation. My guess is that Rees-Mogg is a Game of Thrones fan. Dressed in a pink jacket and purple scarf she seemed to channel Daenerys Targaryen as she sought to explain that her privileged upbringing should not be held against her.
She appealed to a hallowed past of continuity and staunch principles going back to time “in memorial”.
Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
“I didn’t choose my parents,” she declared. “I didn’t choose my name. We are all people. We are in fact exactly the same. One person, one vote, democracy rules!’
If it didn’t take such effort to get up at this stage of their lives, the audience would have stormed the podium and laid bouquets at her feet. When it was time to give up the microphone, would Rees-Mogg sit down or fly off on a dragon?
But no one could upstage Farage, the professionally reluctant politician, driven by the burden of history and his unsleeping conscience to again take up the fight, in the words of the Brexit party slogan, to “Change Politics For Good”. He gave a declamatory speech, full of sweat, denunciation and sideswipes at the likes of EU Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker and Lord Adonis.
“But he’s a clown,” whispered Alicja Bunkenburg, a German woman sitting next to me who was visiting England and worried about the far-right AfD party. She meant Farage.
The crowd struggled once more to its feet, cheering his promise to “bring back our democracy”.
I heard Rees-Mogg answer a question from the floor on why politicians were so frightened in Westminster.
“Because,” she growled, “they’re pathetic.”
Mmm. Perhaps not Daenerys. More like the ruthless Cersei Lannister, Queen of the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros, and perhaps the East Midlands too.