An evening with Nigel Farage

UKIP leader Nigel Farage Image copyright PA
Image caption Mr Farage's pitch is that the three main parties are indistinguishable

Nigel Farage makes Tories sweat.

So I thought I would spend an evening with the UKIP leader to find out why. We had a quick chat over a pint and then I watched him perform at a public meeting in West Sussex.

Here are a few conclusions:

Nigel Farage excites his party.

The meeting at the community hall in Watersfield near Pulborough was packed. The car park spilled over; there was traffic queuing down the road. Some 250 people chose to give up a bright evening in April to come to listen to a politician.

And inside the hall there was the kind of buzz that I have not seen for some time. It was standing room only. Unlike the rather staged public meetings involving the larger party leaders, people were engaged and excited. For some, it looked like fun. All this in leafy West Sussex.

Mr Farage intrigues voters.

In a show of hands, half the audience said they were not UKIP members. Many I spoke to said they were just curious. They wanted to come and see what the fuss was about. Many were mildly unhappy with the larger political parties they had previously voted for and were intrigued to give UKIP a look. There was a lot of grey hair in the audience but not uniformly so. There were some young people and a couple of parents had brought their kids along.

Mr Farage frustrates his opponents.

Some in the audience were Tories. Several were clearly riled by UKIP's success in stealing their voters. So why were they here? "You need to know your enemy," said one.

Mr Farage rides an anti-establishment wave with ease.

His pitch is that the three larger parties are virtually indistinguishable, led by a small group of people from the same political elite "who have never done a real day's work in their lives". He talks frequently of "the madness of the political classes".

And he skillfully ties his issues together. For example, he attacks wind farms initially by arguing that they do not generate energy efficiently. But he then talks about how subsidies for green energy represent a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. And one of those is a man called Sir Reginald Sheffield who, he claims, gets £1,000 a day for putting wind farms on his land. And he just happens to be Samantha Cameron's father. And so we are back to the establishment again.

Mr Farage has successfully broadened UKIP's appeal away from Europe.

The anti-European Union rhetoric is still there - the democratic deficit, the waste, the fraud - but now it segues into other issues, particularly immigration, and particularly immigration from Bulgaria and Romania. When he declares: "Now is the time to put the interests of our working men and women first", there was strong applause.

But he also wins support by attacking the planned HS2 high speed railway and county council waste and high salaries to their officials. Interestingly, he does not mention gay marriage but it does come up unprompted.

Mr Farage poses as the everyman politician, a ordinary man who fell into politics almost accidently.

He talks about his own life as a former financier - "I worked hard in the City for 20 years up until lunch time". He does self-deprecating better than most in a way that puts him on the side of his audience. "I am surprised to see so many fruitcakes, eccentrics, cranks and gadflies here tonight," he says.

Mr Farage has stamina.

For a man with a pretty damaged back following his plane crash in 2010, with a pretty unhealthy beer-and-fags lifestyle, he has extraordinary energy. His non-stop election tour of the country would test most politicians. But somehow, for now at least, he keeps going, even if he does need a cushion for his back.

Mr Farage has a network of unofficial party offices embedded in every community in the country.

They are called pubs. Every time I interview Mr Farage, there is always a pub close by. He uses them as unofficial offices and meeting places.

But more importantly he says: "every pub is a parliament". Pubs are where people talk and the spread the word. And for many, the word is UKIP. Food for thought perhaps for other parties obsessing about how best to use twitter and other forms of social media to get their message to the voters.


Mr Farage is an acquired taste for some.

Not everyone there was convinced by him and the earthy humour and bald slogans that poured from his mouth. When he joked about his German wife - "No one can tell me about the dangers of living in a German dominated household" - you could see some people wince.

His team sell a rather low-grade tea towel bearing the face of Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU council, with the slogan "genuine Belgian damp rag".

One audience member told me: "He has the gift of the gab but I could never trust him." Another said: "It is all smoke and mirrors." Some complained that there were not enough chances to ask him questions.

UKIP can still be unprofessional.

During his speech, a slide projector light was shining in his face throughout. After his rousing speech, the meeting was deflated by a long and dull speech by a Tory councillor who justified his recent defection to UKIP. Their slogan: "Stop open door EU immigration - you know it makes sense" is uncomfortably close to the Monster Raving Loony party's "Vote for insanity - you know it makes sense." This is still a growing party.

My conclusion:

Mr Farage's pitch is attractive to voters. "Stop moaning about the News at Ten and say you are going to do something about it," he says. "Give us a couple of bob. Put up a sign in your window. Bore your friends into submission."

And he is not without ambition. "I don't know what is going to happen in May, whether it will be a large dent of a huge explosion."

But he explicitly says it should be seen as a "dress rehearsal" for next year's European elections. "I believe we have the opportunity to win those elections across the entire UK and cause an earthquake across British politics. We are playing for very high stakes indeed. We are on the edge of a democratic revolution. Please help make it succeed."

For me the most lasting memory of my evening with UKIP is this one thought.

In past elections Nigel Farage asked voters to "lend us your vote", a tacit acknowledgement that voting UKIP was a temporary, protest vote. Now however he doesn't say that. He now says "give us your vote".

And if voters do that then UKIP could become the fourth party of British politics that they hope to become.