The Brexit Party Rally Was the Pinnacle of Pantomime-Populism

We went to Peterborough to watch Nigel Farage and co getting ready to storm the Euro elections.

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14 May 2019, 3:02pm

Nigel Farage during a Brexit Party press conference. Photo: ZUMA Press, Inc. / Alamy Stock Photo

Why do I feel like I'm waiting for a matinee performance of Annie, starring Anita Dobson and Craig Revel Horwood?

The audience is older, sedate, meekly filling up the rows of padded chairs from the front, clasping the bottles of water they’ve been allowed to bring in with them. It’s Peterborough, it’s a Tuesday night, we’re about an hour’s walk out of town, on a miserable light-industrial estate at the top of an unloved turnpike, inside a conference centre and part-time Baptist mega-church that holds 1,500 people.

They began arriving early. An hour before kick-off, the queues were right round the block – and it’s a very big block.

Quantity has a quality all of its own. All events stratify us into a demographic cliche, but there’s still something eerie in how uniform the audience feels. They’re not quite the working class they’re often sold as – but not quite middle either, definitely not metropolitan. The best unifier for this oddly unified group might be that they sit within that pie chart segment Theresa May was briefly obsessed with – the "JAMS", the Just About Managings. They seem like they might file Next clothing under "fancy". Pure Poujadists, the angry middle who’ve gone sideways since the recession, never on the winning side from either capitalism or the welfare state.

And perhaps the reason the start is gawky is precisely because these people have never been to a political event in their lives. Few from the general population have, in fairness; tonight’s event has the same capacity as your average Lib Dem party conference.

But right now, things are changing faster than our imaginations can keep up. The Brexit Party is doing about three of these a week right now. Welcome to the earthquake.

Had Nigel Farage personally penned the script of recent weeks, he could not have imagined a better vehicle for his own return than the one that has played out: a breach-birth Brexit deal, a Conservative Party unsure whether to shit or go blind from day to day, and then, at the very peak of national fury: the most arbitrary protest vote election in 200 years.

The luck just keeps on rolling in. Twenty-four hours after the Peterborough rally, Conservative Campaign Headquarters announces it will only fund the most minimal campaign for the Euro elections. They will not use any private donor money, instead relying entirely on the cash allocated to major parties by central government. The message is clear: the Tory strategy will be to lie down and die, cede the terrain, then deny that these elections ever mattered.

That may prove a historically fateful decision. Training voters on which box to put the cross in is the object of politics. Like any other sales game, conversions are very hard to come by – so retention of existing customers is everything. For the next month, the Brexit Party will be free to go HAM on arguments against the Withdrawal Agreement, but we’ll hear very little rebuttal. The Tories have effectively let a team of wild hyenas loose in their offices, yet they still expect them to need nothing more than a quick hoover on Monday morning. Good luck with that.

When La Republique En Marche!, Emmanuel Macron’s brand new party, took 306 of the 577 seats in the Assemblée Nationale in 2017, Macron had a clear formula. He booked his MPs from Central Casting, not Political Studies 101: half-outsiders, half-women, 2 percent unemployed workers, 4 percent retirees – plus enough catchy narrative spice to snag headlines: the former head of the French equivalent of the SWAT team, a Fields Prize-winning mathematician with the dress sense of Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, a female bullfighter.

Macron played the game of populism at itself and won. In the social media world, narrative is everything, he showed, so just find yourself a cast list through which to sell your story.

The East of England MEP candidates presented to us are strictly in keeping with the idea of storytelling-first: a cyber-security expert, a nuclear scientist, a former Remainer and a Lowestoft fish market worker here to put the case about how "80 percent of our fish are caught by the EU. What country would give away its oceans?"

Twenty-four hours after this, the Brexit Party will announce that their candidate for the Peterborough by-election is a former star of Channel 4’s The Secret Millionaire. Mike Greene, Peterborough native, raised in a council house, lost his first business at 25 but kept on plugging away to earn millions, before giving a bunch of that fortune to charity. A full house of values, all laid out in the potted bio of one cheery dad.

But first, to welcome us to this Children’s Crusade of Middle England, ladies and gentlemen, a third generation property developer worth half a billion quid

Richard Tice is a catalogue-model-handsome string-puller – a backroom boy, former big Tory donor, who has ended up chairing Leave Means Leave, and in recent weeks has decided to make a bid for a career front-of-house. Before he bounds on with boyish brio, we get a slick video montage of Tice sticking it to the Remoaniac Libstreamers on various TV couches – Politics Live, BBC Breakfast, Peston.

Tice is our MC for the evening. He rattles through all the stagecraft tricks from the TedX School Of Likability, but still doesn’t quite cut through, illustrating the perils of our new age – where the likes of The Brexit Party turn amateurism into a conscious aesthetic. There’s a reason seasoned politicians sound the way they do: it works. After him, all six other candidates in the East of England region are given two minutes each to speak. For most, it’s 90 seconds too long. Only Michael Heaver nails it, and as co-editor of Aaron Banks' Brexit blog "Westmonster" he’s a Twitter culture-warrior born with an anti-snowflake grenade clasped between his teeth.

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Ann Widdecombe speaking on stage at a Brexit Party event in Chester, Cheshire (Colin McPherson / Alamy Stock Photo)

Most other speeches are lodged somewhere between boring and inaudible. “I may be in cyber-security, but I’m pretty HACKED off with this government.” Twelve-hundred people barely titter.

It’s up to Ann Widdecombe to bring the energy back up. That’s right: Ann Widdecombe. Living proof of exactly how much latitude the English electorate will give you for being “game for a laugh”.

Somewhere down the years, Ann has gone from "that old witch who suggested chaining pregnant prisoners to their maternity beds" to "thigh-slapping panto at its best". She stalks the stage. Everything is call-and-response. “YES!” this, “NO!” that. She tells them exactly what they want to hear: "THEY think you’re STUPID! Well are you?!?" And treats the entire political class (of which she is a platinum debenture holder) as though they’re the thickiest thickshakes in Thicktown.

“Theresa May… doesn’t have the leadership skills… of a Brown Owl.” The way Ann Widdecombe pronounces “Brown Owl” should be in the British Library. If England sent a capsule of its culture into deep space, you’d want the Bayeux Tapestry, Paradise Lost, The White Album and a recording of the trilled “r”s, the orotund “o”s, the molasses of sardony she pumps into each syllable. A thousand long-dead country spinsters sing through her.

Tim Martin is tonight’s surprise package: yup, the nation’s favourite publican-who-was-recently-caught-openly-flouting-copyright-by-re-publishing-articles-from-the-FT-in-his-magazine, and self-selected life president of the common sense trust.

But there’s only one man the crowds came here for. Only one guy to whom 20 percent of the British electorate are personally loyal – no matter what party he happens to be in.

“You wouldn’t believe it, but I’ve had him in training,” Tice teases, bringing to mind the start of the "In Da Club" video.

And yes – this is something others have murmured about. Andy Warhol used to say that he purposely tried to look old when he was young so that he would look young when he was old. Fellow art prankster Farage, who already looked 50 when he was 40, at 55 seems to be heading back towards 50. Recent reports say he’s walking up to 30 miles a week now, to ward off the recurrent chronic pain of his 2010 plane crash.

Nigel speaks for 25 minutes, no notes, just free-associating talking points: a dowsing rod for inchoate national rage, and a master at work.

There’s nothing new here, no fresh directional markers, just light, frothy stuff, instantly familiar to anyone who has tuned into his LBC show since Christmas. If you haven’t already heard his line about the Withdrawal Treaty (“It’s the kind of terms that would be imposed upon a country who’d been defeated in war”), then tonight was never for you anyway.

“They call themselves Change UK,” Nigel chortles. “They don’t want to change a thing!” Crowd chortles. “Their logo – it looks like a barcode in Sainsbury’s!” Everyone chortles.

… “I told them, that if I did come back, it’d be no more Mr Nice Guy… and I meant it.” Stern upward inflection, crescendo, roar of crowd.

There is a small window for questions, which are even softer. Ann Widdecombe is asked why she never got a peerage. “I’ll tell you why. It’s very simple. David Cameron didn’t like me.” Thunderous applause. “And that’s fine… I didn’t much like him!” Thunderous applause quadruples in volume.

Someone asks what will happen to the Brexit Party after the Euro elections – but it’s brushed off with one more gag. Right now, the party has no policies and only one word in its manifesto – Brexit. Right now, the message is simply: "Get angry. Rip up politics. We’ll fill in the details of what goes in that hole later." That’s the best kind of populism, after all – simple electoral primal scream therapy. "We are the stick," they’re saying. "Now beat them with us."

“The people in Parliament won’t pass the deal?” Nigel affirms, “Then I am happy to say I have a solution… Get rid of the people in Parliament."

“We will clear out the Augean Stables that is Westminster,” Widdecombe – a long-time MP, a former Cabinet minister and Conservative grandee – tells us.

The Brexit Party is a unique mirage. In one sense, it’s not even a party: you pay your £25 “supporter's fee” – and nearly 100,000 have – but that doesn’t buy you a vote in the party structures, because there are no party structures: internal democracy is not allowed in pursuit of external democracy.

Rumour is that this is how Nigel likes it anyway – that one of his major frustrations with UKIP was the built-in choker of party democracy, of various Bufton-Tuftons with their own ideas. The Brexit Party, then, is as much an attempt to wipe the slate clean, to take his whole project back to some kind of drawing board, nix the bits he doesn’t like. If you had to start all over again on becoming PM: how would you do it?

We’re now living in that timeline, and his new party is a brilliant bit of social reverse-engineering: as well-tooled for the social media age as Tony Blair’s New Labour was for the rolling-news era.

At the end, we’re all asked to hold up our identical cardboard placards, each with the Brexit Party slogan: “Change Politics For Good”, while the cameras swoop in for the money shot. As much as this is a rally, it’s also a stage set for the making of high quality video assets to be seeded to social media channels.

You wouldn’t think of Farage as the kind of guy who could tabulate the ways the new tech landscape is shifting the nature of messaging itself, but if not, he’s definitely met someone who has. From the candidates down, the Brexit Party has been brilliant at sculpting its narrative. The drones panning high along snaking crowds, the slo-mo footage sliding into sped-up shots, set against bedding tracks of tinkly-pulsing electro-piano: it’s the NowThis template for virality.

What no one saw coming is that the same tricks of presentation can work just as well for Farage as for, say, Beto O’Rourke. Turns out pretty much every story, in the end, can be one about how “we are all coming together as humans to do something wonderful for our common humanity by inviting change to come” if you cut between Canon 7D footage of various multi-ethnic, multi-class people speaking the same script.

As British politics continues to lock in around this single issue fulcrum on which to smash itself, we’re left with two single-issues parties projecting twin nihilisms. The nihilism of anti-democracy. And the nihilism of anti-politics. Change UK and The Brexit Party. Partly by an accident of history, it turns out that the populists who want to tell you all politics – except them – is a fetid brothel are much better at messaging than the technocrats who want to tell you that democracy did a whoopsie.

Right now, given that one of them is polling at 34 percent and the other at 2 percent – if you want to make your protest felts, if you want to be swept away by the intoxicating narcissism of the hopey-changey thing, well, who you gonna call?

@gavhaynes