A battle cry has gone out for more troops, and the UKIP faithful have responded. Newark, packed with Tory spinners and regularly visited by David Cameron and assorted Tory grandees, has now attracted hundreds of purple campaigners for this week’s by-election. From all corners of the UK – from Scotland to Cornwall, the Eastern counties to Wales, the most fervent UKIP believers gathered yesterday for a public meeting near Newark, and a chance to see their chief protagonist, Nigel Farage.
‘After the European elections, we can smell blood,’ said a cheerful UKIP activist, Scott Cross, from Hampshire. Former Tory activist Steve Stanbury, who defected to UKIP a few years ago, felt ‘exhilarated and invigorated for the first time in ages.’ And this exuberance was given full vent when their saviour Farage appeared. Entering the packed 500-plus crowd in Newark’s genteel Kelham Hall, the ovation was standing and the roar was deafening. The grand Victorian hall is usually used for weddings, but marital celebrations had nothing on the enthusiastic applause from UKIP’s blue rinse brigade yesterday, still buzzing from their triumph in the EU elections a week earlier.
The typical Farage formula for a rousing speech was met with cheers, whistles and enthusiastic applause, as he railed against the political elites and the ‘commentariat”. But there was also bait for the Labour vote. The £55m spent on the EU could be better spent, said parliamentary candidate and UKIP MEP Roger Helmer, on ‘eliminating the need for foodbanks’ or on keeping the local A&E department – a key local issue in Newark. Helmer assured the crowd that there were no plans to charge for GP surgeries or privatise the NHS, nor scrap paid maternity leave.
He also gave the obligatory digs towards the Conservative candidate, Robert Jenrick, who is ‘gilded youth’ and a ‘London property millionaire’ who has already bought a residence in Vincent Square, a convenient walk from the House of Commons. Helmer said he has worked in international trade for ‘slightly longer than Mr Jenrick’s lifetime’.
Helmer is, Farage said, the only candidate in the Newark elections who is not ‘lobby fodder’. ‘I will vote for what the people of Newark tell me and for what I think is right,’ he said to roars and cheers from the audience. ‘I will not be under the thumb of whips’. Well there will be no need for a whip with a parliamentary presence of one.
Farage continued to raise the crowd’s hopes with the example of Canada’s Reform Party, who came from nowhere to transform the country’s political agenda and shift it to the right. ‘They were called cranks, oddballs, weirdos… extremists and dangerous,’ Farage said. ‘In 1998 they averaged 4 per cent of the vote…. At the next general election they became the biggest party in parliament. Now Canada has the best budget deficit of the G8 countries.’
So, I asked a UKIP activist, is this kind of ebullient reception for Farage normal? ‘I saw a woman at the conference last year, with tears in her eyes,’ he says. ‘I asked her if she was OK, and she said Farage had just changed her life.’
These are the people who will be wearing out shoe leather this week, leafleting and canvassing for the hope of UKIP’s first parliamentary seat, in a battle against the well-oiled machine of the Conservatives. Should they succeed, the fervour can only increase.