‘We do feel we’re being betrayed’: Older voters flock to Brexit Party
Nigel Farage attacks ‘dishonest, duplicitous and utterly useless’ Theresa May at party rally
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage addresses a rally at the Rainton Meadows Arena in Houghton-le-Spring while on the European election campaign trail in Durham. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage speaks during a Brexit Party campaign event in Houghton-le-Spring. Photograph: Scott Heppell/Reuters
Ann Widdecombe during a Brexit Party rally at the Rainton Meadows Arena in Houghton-le-Spring. Photograph: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Ann Widdecombe had already won over the 1,200-strong crowd at Rainton Meadows Arena in in Houghton-le-Spring, Durham, with a call-and-response routine listing the freedoms Brexit would restore to Britain. Now the former Conservative MP and Strictly Come Dancing contestant was ready to bring them roaring to their feet as she identified who was thwarting the will of the people.
“Those patronising, snooty nincompoops who sit at their dinner parties and say, ‘oh poor dears, they didn’t know what they were voting for’. We knew exactly what we were voting for. But did they know what they were voting for? I think they did. They were voting to keep Britain under the control of a foreign power,” she said.
Built above a defunct coalmine halfway between Durham and Sunderland, the arena is known locally as a venue for cage fighting, but on Saturday it hosted the latest rally for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
A poll this weekend ahead of next week’s European Parliament elections put the Brexit Party on 34 per cent, more than the combined totals of the two main parties, with Labour on 22 per cent and the Conservatives on 11 per cent.
No internal party democracy
The party has almost 70,000 members who have paid £25 each, but it has no policies and no internal party democracy. However, it has the support of almost two out of three voters who backed Brexit in 2016, and a poll on Sunday put it ahead of the Conservatives in a general election match-up. The crowd, whose members had paid £2.50 each to hear Farage and Widdecombe in Durham, was overwhelmingly over 50 and mostly a lot older, with hearing aids and walking sticks in abundance.
Most of those I spoke to were former Conservative voters like Lynda Andrews, who came to the rally with some friends from Sunderland.
“I’m certainly interested in potentially voting for the Brexit Party because we do feel we’re being betrayed,” she said.
“I have no reason to think that Theresa May is not genuine, but I believe there’s been mistakes made by taking ‘no deal’ off the table.
“The majority voted to leave. We voted for Brexit – and everybody is angry because that’s what we expected.”
Like a prize-fighter
Farage walked through the cheering crowd like a prize-fighter, to pumping rock music, looking trimmer than before as he climbed on to the stage.
“I’m trying to be off the beer,” he said later as someone handed him a pint and he starts drinking it, “but it doesn’t seem to be going very well.”
Farage went on the attack almost immediately, denouncing the “dishonest, duplicitous and utterly useless” May as “the worst prime minister in the history of this country, bar none”. He described her Brexit deal as a humiliation for Britain on the international stage and “more like a surrender document of a nation that’s been defeated in war”.
Every reference to war and to military sacrifice in defence of freedom won loud cheers, while any mention of a pro-Remain politician was greeted with a hiss or a boo.
“Those MPs look down upon you. They think you’re morons,” Farage says.
Despite the rhetoric of betrayal and appeals to anger, the crowd remained good-humoured throughout the hour-long rally. Farage said the Brexit Party represented the “new, positive politics” as he threatened to take on both the Conservatives and Labour in the next general election.
A hate figure for Remainers who blame him for introducing right-wing populism to Britain, Farage can also be credited with important acts of political hygiene. Under his leadership, Ukip helped to drive the overtly racist and fascist British National Party (BNP) to extinction by offering a more respectable home for those to the right of the Conservatives.
The Brexit Party may be serving the same function today as it drives Ukip, now dominated by anti-Muslim ideology and flirting with street thugs like Tommy Robinson, to the margins. The members of Farage’s audience in Durham I spoke to on Saturday were mostly old, right-wing conservatives, but they were not apparently racist or on the authoritarian far right.
Although they revelled in the knockabout onstage from Farage and Widdecombe, and will vote for the party next week, most said they would go back to the Conservatives under a new leader, as long as that leader was a true Brexiteer. Some, like Andrews, were even willing to acknowledge that Brexit created problems for Northern Ireland and that a no-deal Brexit was not without risk.
“I love Ireland. Obviously I would want the best outcome for Ireland, but I believe they’re making too much of it. I think it’s propaganda, I really do. Where there’s a will there’s a way,” she said.
“Obviously it sounds as if you’re taking chances if you say you would have no deal. But you deal with and you work with what you have. It’s a staging post.”