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At the Brexit Party's Wales rally, Nigel Farage targets Labour and the backstop - but thinks Juncker is rather fun

In what was an electoral stronghold for the Labour Party, Nigel Farage’s Brexit movement is gathering momentum.

Farage at a Brexit rally at the Lincolnshire Showground in Lincoln.
Farage at a Brexit rally at the Lincolnshire Showground in Lincoln.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

THE BREXIT PARTY is channelling people’s anger. 

Riding on a wave of frustration with the UK political system and its failure (as of yet) to deliver on the result of the 2016 referendum, the party won 29 of 73 seats available to the United Kingdom in the European elections, making it the largest British party in parliament. It now has 635 MP candidates vetted for the next election.

In order to be different from its traditional rivals, the Brexit Party is in the middle of a ‘conference tour’ of cities across the UK. Today’s event was hosted in Newport, Wales’ third largest city which was once a booming port, with a prosperous coal industry.

A previous Brexit Party event held in the city during the European election got a rapturous response, and someone warned that the crowd would be rowdy. A local suggested that the appetite for the Brexit Party here is because Newport’s people feel they have been repeatedly let down by politicians who promised to represent them. 

Although 52% of the Welsh population voted to leave the EU, the Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has said he would back Remain if a second referendum was held. Locals repeatedly say that most Welsh farmers are in favour of leaving the EU, but their politicians refuse to deliver on that mandate. 

Drakeford’s name is one of many that drew boos from the crowd at the conference, which hosted around 300 people inside The Neon Theatre this Saturday afternoon. The others were Labour’s Emily Thornberry and Stephen Kinnock, and former Tory Anna Soubry. 

Some people in the crowd are ardent Brexit Party fans – wearing the distinct turquoise t-shirts, and waving ‘We Are Ready’ signs when prompted. Some had brought their children, some went with their spouses. One man was wearing a ‘Make America Great Again’ cap. Others were there out of simple curiosity.

“We don’t know if this lot are different, but we hope they are,” one attendee said. 

Broken trust is a theme of the event: merchandise outside of the conference hall has the slogan “Change Politics for Good”; one of the questions put to the Brexit Party leaders during the conference was whether there should be an immediate by-election if an MP defects from his or her party. 

Ann Widdecombe hammered this point home again and again in her impassioned speech that gripped the audience, triggering cries of approval and laughter in equal measure.

“The nation voted to leave,” she said. “It didn’t vote to stand there with one leg in and one leg out.”

Boris thinks we’re going to be fooled into bringing in a souped up version of Theresa May’s deal. That’s like going from full imprisonment to house arrest.

Earlier this year, Widdecombe drew sharp criticism on herself, when making a similarly emotive plea in the European Parliament, she compared the UK leaving the European Union to “slaves” rising up “against their owners”.

Today, she accused politicians of trying to “water down” the Leave vote; later, Welsh MEP James Wells made a somewhat Shakespearean reference to the “charlatans presiding over this rotting corpse of a democracy”. The crowd loved it, and cheered back.

Here’s Nigel Farage

The Brexit Party’s founder and leader is Nigel Farage of course, who also founded and led Ukip previously; resigning from the party the day after the Brexit vote in June 2016, and leaving the party entirely in 2018 due to its “fixation” on Islamophobia.

Because of this link and because both draw similar voters and candidates, the two parties have been likened to one another often (in fact, Ukip’s conference was also held in Newport today, just hours before the Brexit Party’s and at a different venue). The party’s critics accuse the Brexit Party of being a second Ukip; though a spokesperson denied this to be the case. 

Ahead of Nigel Farage’s arrival on stage today, Richard Tice (MEP and Brexit Party second-in-command) illustrated the problems with the Withdrawal Agreement by using the word ‘PRISON’, and using the first letter of each word to spell out a problem.

By the time he read out ‘N’ (which stood for ‘Not Brexit, but a prison with no key), a pillar for each letter/problem had been placed around him. He then broke through the pillars at the end, much to the audience’s enjoyment.

Heavyweight Brexiteer Farage subsequently took to the stage, with 20 of the Brexit Party’s Welsh MP candidates lining up behind him. 

In his speech, he decried those who “talked down to or humiliated” the UK, said that he wanted no part of a “new European empire” that would “snuff out and crush our nation state democracy”. 

He also made pointed remarks about specific figures – referred to those protesting against UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson as the “baying mob”, calling the Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel “that little guy”, and saying that although we needed to respect those with different political opinions to our own, that sentiment “doesn’t apply to Guy Verhofstadt” – a Belgian MEP who has been forcefully critical of Brexit and the UK government. 

The backstop is almost a peripheral issue to these political grievances – although Farage is the only one to bring the divisive mechanism for avoiding a hard Irish border up in his speech, it’s a common perception among Brexiteers that the backstop is a cunning EU trick to stop the UK from leaving. 

As Farage told the crowd today:

[The EU's negotiator] Michel Barnier said ‘Let’s provide the question for which it is very difficult to provide an answer’. And you’ve got to say, the truth of it is, he is very much better [at] this than Olly Robbins [Theresa May's main negotiator in Brussels] who was on our side.

“He’s boxed us in! He’s boxed us in! Mrs May accepted the principle of the backstop, and we’ve been in trouble ever since.”

All this angry enthusiastic energy is peppered with a tone of humour and goodwill. While criticising Johnson for making decisions that prompted “even his own brother” to leave the party he leads, Farage then said that that “would be difficult on anybody”, and that he has “human sympathy” for him.

Later, in a reference to Ireland, Farage said: 

If we leave with no deal – a clean break – Barnier says there will be no hard border. The Taoiseach Varadkar has said there will be no hard border. Now unless Donald Trump is coming over to Ireland – although he’s got quite a big wall to build with Mexico, so I’m not sure he has time.

Despite his suspicions, Farage says Barnier is a “very polite, very charming, very proper” man, and recalls an interaction with him where Farage wished “you were on our side”.

In the middle of explaining how the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker indicated that the EU’s position on the backstop could be softening because Juncker said he had “no emotional attachment” to the backstop, Farage digressed about how he found it funny that Juncker later said he had no “erotic attachment” to it.

Laughing, Farage said: “Whatever about the politics, I do like Juncker, I think he’s rather funny.”

That charming playful humour, woven with the constant lambasting of the political establishment for not delivering on the result of the 2016 referendum and the feeling that the Labour party has failed the region, results in a powerful hopefulness in the room that this time, this political party means what they say.

There’s an earnestness that appeals to the disillusioned voter: the Brexit Party is selling itself as a grassroot movement that wants to preserve Britain, and prides itself on having doctors, taxi drivers, and farmers among its candidates in the next general election.

Based on current predictions, the Brexit Party is to win 14% of the vote, which, for a political party that was only registered officially 23 weeks ago, is some feat. 

Bearing all that in mind, whether they’re able to retain that momentum depends on one of the final things Farage said on stage today, when he advised Boris Johnson:

“Do not think you can dupe the British people, because you won’t get away with it.”

With the trust of the working class, the vulnerable and the marginalised so damaged, the Brexit Party had best make sure it doesn’t break their trust the same way.

- Reporting from Newport, Wales.

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