On Friday, in an inconspicuous metal finishing factory on an industrial estate in Coventry, Nigel Farage officially launched his new Brexit Party, and set out its strategy ahead of the European Parliament elections on 23 May.
The message of the day was clear: the people, especially Leave voters, have been let down by the Westminster establishment, and voting for the Brexit party is the best way to show that you are angry, and willing to do something about it.
Kitted out in his customary Union Flag socks, Farage hit out at the way the Brexit negotiations had been conducted so far, describing it as a ‘wilful betrayal of the greatest democratic exercise in the history of this nation’. Much of his venom was reserved for politicians in Westminster, which – he claimed – his new party would ‘put the fear of God into’. He said career politicians didn’t believe that Britain was still a great country, and were overseeing its managed decline. At the moment, the people are ‘lions led by donkeys’.
It was clear today that the Brexit party’s main messaging throughout the European elections will be about channelling the frustration voters feel about Brexit. But Farage also sought to make the party more than just about Britain leaving the EU. He said that the elections on 23 May were only the first step and that the party’s true aim was to cause a ‘revolution’ that would break apart the two party system. The party would eventually publish a manifesto and reveal policies, though none were put forward today.
As ever with Farage, there were the usual theatrics. He revealed that he had been to the bookies that morning and placed a £1,000 bet on the Brexit Party coming first in the upcoming elections (at 3/1). He also introduced the first roster of MEP candidates the party had selected to fight the election, which included businessman Richard Tice and Annunziata Rees-Mogg, the sister of Jacob. If any announcement was going to generate headlines, it’s that he’d managed to poach one of the Rees-Moggs away from their natural home in the Tory Party.
It was also a sign of the kind of voters the Brexit party now wants to attract. Speaking to a number of people in the audience today, it was striking how many had long links to the Conservative Party. One member of the audience, Harry Harker, told Coffee House he had supported the Tories for 50 years, but was now sure he would vote for the Brexit party instead. One couple had been actively involved in their local associations many years ago, but had become disillusioned over the party’s stance on Europe. Others had been Conservative voters all their lives.
As you would expect, some also voted for Ukip in the last election, or supported the party in the past. Some had re-joined the Conservatives in 2016 as a result of the referendum, others left at the same time as Farage due to Ukip’s courtship of Tommy Robinson. Farage himself attempted to draw a clear between his new party and Ukip today, which he said was now associated with ‘thuggery’. The new Brexit Party supporters in general seemed to agree, and suggested more respectable parties like Farage’s would provide an outlet for the current anger felt toward politicians, without it boiling over into violence or support for extremists.
Uniting all the people at the event was their deep frustration and disillusionment with the current state of Westminster politics. The negotiations were described as a ‘fiasco’, with ‘rotten’ MPs ‘lying through their teeth.’ Theresa May was called ‘Treason May’ and attendees complained that MPs have ‘ruined the democratic system.’ These audience members were also motivated enough to do something about it: at least two people Coffee House spoke to had travelled several hours to attend the launch. As one prospective candidate put it: ‘it’s better than shouting at the TV.’
A large part of their anger was directed specifically at the Tory party. There was a sense that May’s Withdrawal Agreement and extension of Article 50 had betrayed the last manifesto and taken Eurosceptic voters for granted. In many ways, this anger toward the Tories reveals the true aim of the Brexit party, at least until 23 May. Even if the party does not come first at the European elections as Nigel Farage predicts, it was essential to many people in the audience that they send a clear message to the Tories. Even those who said they would never vote for the party again, hoped their ballot box rebellion would force the next leader of the country to take Britain out of the EU.
Whether this will be effective or not will become clearer in the coming weeks. The party has a powerful message that is likely to resonate with voters who want to stick two fingers up at the two main parties. In 2014, Farage’s Ukip managed to harness this discontent to win the largest UK share of the vote in the EU elections. But the Brexit Party was only founded in January this year and so will be something of an unknown quantity to most voters. Farage has made much of the fact that his party has already raised £750,000 through small donations, and more than 1,000 people have applied to become MEP candidates. But outside of the political obsessives, it’s worth remembering that the Brexit Party is still relatively unknown – recent polling has suggested that only 6 per cent of the public support the party.
In many ways though it won’t matter whether it’s Ukip or Farage’s new party that manages to profit most from the Brexit discontent. For Eurosceptics, this election seems to be about sending a shockwave through the political system. And if the people I’ve spoken to today in any way reflect the rest of the country, it’s the Conservative Party that should be worried.