In a small town in the Black Country last night, a political rally took place which should have the two main parties feeling extremely nervous. Willenhall, on the outskirts of Wolverhampton, doesn’t even have a train station. Yet well over a thousand supporters packed out a wedding venue to see the Brexit Party’s latest rally, filling every seat, standing in the aisles and exhibiting a greater enthusiasm than has been seen in British politics since the rise of Jeremy Corbyn.
The Brexit Party launched only a few weeks ago but already this is looking like a movement which could have a profound effect on Britain’s politics. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Betty Mitchell, 85, “it’s people power.” Hearing the cheers and chanting and seeing the repeated standing ovations of the crowd, it’s evident that the setbacks plaguing the UK’s abortive attempt to leave the EU, far from dampening the spirit of leave voters, has turbo charged it.
None of the attendees I spoke to had been to a political event before. Michael Levin, from Willenhall, had come to listen to Nigel Farage. “I like what he says. He talks my language,” he said. I asked what he thought about accusations from his critics that he’s a “snake-oil salesman”. He shrugged: “He’s accused of a lot of things”.
Many had come to support “democracy”. “We feel so betrayed”, said Mary Fletcher, from Perton, Staffordshire, “I’ve never known a worse PM than this one”. Asked what she thought about calls for a second referendum, she told me: “It’s like a football match, and the losers didn’t like the result, so they’re saying let’s do it again because the winners didn’t know what they were doing.”
Willenhall was once famous for the manufacture of locks, which were exported around the world. Close to the venue where Farage appeared was a small memorial park for fallen WWI soldiers from the local lock works. A plaque emblazoned with a heavily eroded EU flag read: “This scheme was partly financed with aid from the European Regional Development Fund”. No one I spoke to at the rally seemed remotely bothered about this. “We contribute more than we receive”, said Andrew Clarke, from Sedgley, West Midlands.
It’s a sentiment that Farage has spent 25 years tapping into. Taking to the stage as the crowd stood and chanted his name, he produced a Brexit Party placard and held it up to the audience. Having just sat down, those gathered promptly rose to their feet again in rapturous applause. Farage hadn’t even started speaking yet. To his supporters it seems he can do no wrong. He has united lifelong Tory and Labour voters with a shared feeling that politics must finally “change for good”.
The party’s success in bringing together opposing political tribes is undeniable. Earlier this week, Paul Embery, the pro-leave trade union activist, tweeted a video featuring Ann Widdecombe, the Brexit Party’s lead candidate for the South West. Embery said the clip of Widdecombe being cheered at a working men’s club in a former mining town in Yorkshire “is the equivalent of Jeremy Corbyn being hailed by the Henley-on Thames branch of the Women’s Institute”. In the video, Widdecombe points to the party’s remarkable polling figures and says “if this is what we can do when we’ve been around for a few weeks, imagine what we can do when we’ve been around for a few years.”
What this party has managed seems almost surreal, but it suffers from a gaping flaw. It’s a phenomenon which can only exist within this campaign. Honouring the 2016 referendum and fighting for seats it hopes not to take is its raison d’etre. The motives which brought all of these disparate elements together only meet on this single issue and in this highly unusual context.
For now it is being held together by the common cause of getting past the first hurdle: leaving the EU. Beyond that looms an almighty split. Yet even if the Brexit Party does not stand the test of time, its unlikely coalition could well be the only way to resolve the parliamentary impasse and deliver Brexit.