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Following Farage: On the Trail of the People's Army

Following Farage: On the Trail of the People's Army

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Following Farage: On the Trail of the People's Army

Longueur:
437 pages
6 heures
Sortie:
Jun 25, 2015
ISBN:
9781849549516
Format:
Livre

Description

Hunting with Godfrey Bloom; lunching on expenses with Janice Atkinson; talking 'shock and awful' campaign tactics with Douglas Carswell - nothing is off the table when you're on the trail of UKlP's People's Army. Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 meets Louis Theroux, Following Farage recounts one hack's journey as he follows, drinks with, laughs at and even occasionally defends the phenomenon that is the United Kingdom lndependence Party as it prepares to march upon Westminster. With exclusive interviews and unfettered access to all the disgraced generals, trusty foot soldiers, deserters and dissenters who make up its ranks, Bennett delivers the inside scoop on what makes the People's Army tick - all the while making the transition from elbowed-out hanger-on to the journalist Farage calls for an honest, post-election run-down of events. From the initial skirmishes and battle plans (the successful and the scuppered) to the explosive events of the battle for No. 10 itself - and the all-out civil war that broke out in its aftermath - Following Farage leaves no stone unturned, avenue untrod or pint undrunk in its quest for the truth about Britain's newest and most controversial political force.
Sortie:
Jun 25, 2015
ISBN:
9781849549516
Format:
Livre

À propos de l'auteur

Owen Bennett is a political journalist working in Westminster. After starting out in local newspapers, he joined the Daily Express, becoming its online political reporter. He then led the political coverage for the Mirror online, and was Deputy Political Editor of HuffPost UK. He is currently Head of Politics at CityAM. Owen is a regular contributor to the BBC and Sky News and has also written for the Telegraph, Spectator and New Statesman.

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Following Farage - Owen Bennett

year.

PART 1

SKIRMISHES

‘We were written off as a party, we were cranks, gadflies, fruit flies, extremists, and the Prime Minister even called us closet racists, so we’ve had to put up with a bit of stick over the years to get to where we are.’

Nigel Farage, 3 April 2013, in Lydney,

Gloucestershire, during his ‘Common Sense’ tour

CHAPTER 1

FROM HODDESDON TO ETERNITY

 11 APRIL 2013

‘D

EXYS FUCKING MIDNIGHT RUNNERS

,’ he spat out with venom. The group’s biggest hit ‘Come On Eileen’ was blaring out of the pub’s speakers.

‘Not a fan?’ I asked. (Us journalists can pick up on subtle hints like these.)

Nigel Farage sniffed before replying: ‘Honestly, I would ban music in pubs.’

He took another gulp of his ale.

I didn’t really know what to say to that. I’ve got nothing against Dexys. Granted, ‘Geno’ is a far superior tune to ‘Come On Eileen’, but I don’t think it was Kevin Rowland’s musical shift from a Northern Soul-influenced New Wave act to chart-topping pop star that had annoyed Farage.

Despite the anti-Dexys – or, rather, music in general – proclamation, Farage looked relaxed. Of course he was. He was in his comfort zone – drinking warm ale in a pub after spending an hour working up a thirst by canvassing. He was relaxed now, but the day hadn’t started off smoothly.

The UKIP bus had broken down, making him late. An hour and a half before our lunchtime pint, I had been with a small crowd of UKIP supporters gathered by the clock tower in the town centre waiting for Farage’s arrival. There were no more than thirty of them, but they stood out. To be honest, any group of people gathered together in Hoddesdon town centre on a damp, grey morning in April is going to stand out. The Hertfordshire town is not known for its hustle and bustle. The purple balloons attached to a table, complete with a giant UKIP banner tied between two bollards, added to the spectacle.

But still, it was only thirty people. I certainly didn’t look at them and think they were a ‘People’s Army’. But this was April 2013, before all the ‘People’s Army’ rhetoric. Before the UKIP fox was in the Westminster hen house. Before defections.

Farage was well known, but still seen by many – especially in the media – as an eccentric. Some felt he was dangerous; some felt he was comical; most felt he was irrelevant.

UKIP had a handful of MEPs, but they kept defecting, getting sacked or saying ridiculous things such as all Muslims should sign a declaration promising they weren’t going to become terrorists.

The party seemed destined to be on the political fringes. Even after successes in the European elections in 2009 and 2004, UKIP had failed to win any seats in the Commons in the following years’ general elections. It only had seven local councillors across England, and support for the party was erratic – its polling fluctuated between 10 and 17 per cent in the first eleven days of that April alone.

Farage was coming to Hoddesdon as part of that year’s local election campaign, and it was to be my first of many encounters with him.

Margaret Thatcher had died earlier that week, and suddenly everyone was a Eurosceptic Tory again. Good old Maggie, she wouldn’t have taken any of this nonsense from the EU. She would have controlled immigration. She would have defended our high-powered vacuums. She wouldn’t have voted to keep us in a single-market union in 1975. Well, maybe not the last one.

I was working for the Hertfordshire Mercury and, although Hoddesdon wasn’t my patch – I had recently been given the much quieter beat of Buntingford – I had been sent down to report on Farage’s visit.

I had already begun shifting on the Daily Express website at weekends, and, in a few weeks, would be leaving the world of local news and joining the Express permanently – hence the Mercury editor’s decision to relegate me to the trainee beat of Buntingford to serve out the last few weeks of my notice.

Farage was running late and so, notebook in hand, with a pen slotted into the wire rings at the top, I paced around.

I had already done my vox pops, picking out a number of supporters to get comments from – the youngest, the eldest, anyone who looked vaguely interesting.

No one had said anything too remarkable – ‘too much immigration’, ‘sick of Europe’, ‘down with this sort of thing’ – and I knew, even as I spoke to them, their comments probably wouldn’t get in the piece. Vikki, the paper’s photographer, was taking some pointless snaps. She knew they were pointless but, like me, wanted to look busy. It was all very different from what the local UKIP organiser had promised in his press release: ‘UKIP leader Nigel Farage will parade through Hoddesdon in a branded bus as part of his tour of the county ahead of the local elections next month.’

I was expecting an American-style, open-top election bus, complete with a loud hailer bellowing out into the streets of Hoddesdon that everyone must ‘Vote UKIP’ in the upcoming election.

I was expecting a carnival atmosphere; a swarm of people descending on the town centre, all hoping for a glimpse of their Dear Leader – all hoping for a wave from the man with a cigarette in his mouth, a pint in his hand and St George in his heart.

I was expecting too much, clearly.

As it was, with the grey April sky overhead threatening rain, I, like the others, was waiting to see if Farage would arrive at all.

UKIP’s local organiser, a market-stall holder called David Platt, chatted with members of the crowd before he bounded up to me. He cheerily told me the UKIP bus had broken down near Norwich, and Farage and other party members were on alternative transport.

I quipped that I hoped it wasn’t a plane, bearing in mind Farage’s near-death experience while campaigning in 2010. For a publicity stunt, he had decided to fly in a light aircraft pulling a ‘Vote UKIP’ banner over Buckinghamshire on the day voters went to the polls in the 2010 election. The banner got caught in the plane’s propellers, forcing it to come crashing to the ground. Farage was lucky to escape serious injury, although he was plagued with a back problem after the incident.

For commentators and headline writers it was a dream – UKIP’s campaign literally coming crashing to earth just a year after a successful European election campaign.

David Platt just looked at me, and thankfully the awkwardness was broken by his phone ringing.

Three years on from the plane crash, and Farage, who had stood down as UKIP leader to unsuccessfully fight the Buckinghamshire seat, was back in charge of the party.

I glanced down Hoddesdon high street, which, like most small towns these days, operates a confusing one-way system. Trundling up the road to the clock tower where we were all stationed was a plum-coloured minibus, with bright yellow writing on the side. From a distance it looked like a retirement bus from a care home for Ribena berries, but, as it got nearer, I recognised the distinctive yellow pound-sign UKIP logo.

An American presidential motorcade convoy this was not.

The van pulled up next to the clock tower, and out stepped a man wearing the most disgustingly coloured trousers I had ever seen – mustard yellow. The trousers were matched with a wax jacket, and the look was topped off with a felt trilby.

You can say what you like about Nigel Farage, but he certainly made an impression.

The combination of the trousers, his broad grin and the fact he had finally arrived appeared to send the gathered crowd into a very British kind of excitement. Everyone seemed to want to shake his hand, pat him on the back and have a picture with him, but they were aware this was not quite what you did in Hoddesdon to a man with mustard-yellow corduroy trousers on.

It was by now 11.30 a.m., and as Farage had been wearing the trousers for at least five hours in places where similar displays of colour, personality and uniqueness are equally frowned upon – my home town of Bishop’s Stortford just 20 miles north, for example – he was used to the reaction.

In true politician style, he worked the room – or square, as it was. He shook hands, he posed for pictures, he flashed his Cheshire Cat grin. He thanked everyone for their support, seemed deferential to those older than him, acted like a cheeky uncle to those younger, and greeted those of the same generation like long-lost old friends.

With his supporters and a few curious members of the public gathered round, he gave a quick speech: ‘I want UKIP councillors to expose the amount of money wasted on translation services, climate change officers and diversity officers. Somebody has got to stand up and oppose the building of these hugely expensive wind turbines which are spoiling the countryside.’

It was hardly the Gettysburg address, but as he couldn’t really mention the EU – it was a local election, remember – he didn’t have a lot to go on.

With that, he dived off into town for a walk around and to meet the great British public.

But town was empty. It wasn’t market day. The weather was a bit cold and there’s not much in Hoddesdon.

Unbowed by the indifference, Farage went into shops along the high street. The butcher, estate agent and, of course, a few pubs all got a little visit from the UKIP leader.

I followed him into one boozer and approached him at the bar. It was by now about 12.30 p.m., and as he lifted his pint of ale to his lips he saw me and smiled.

‘Been looking forward to that?’ I asked.

After a large, loud gulp, Farage turned to me and said: ‘Oooh, yeah – life on the road.’

It was only half past midday.

We sat down at a table together and I asked him how he thought the day had gone. After offering his opinion on the pub’s music policy, I told him I was off to the Daily Express full time in a few weeks. The paper was a big supporter of many of UKIP’s policies, and within a year its chief political commentator Patrick O’Flynn would be working for the party as its director of communications before becoming an MEP.

Farage nodded approvingly, and reserved special praise for the pub opposite Express HQ in London’s Lower Thames Street (The Walrus and The Carpenter).

He finished his pint and continued on his walk of the town with his band of followers.

I left the Ukippers to it, and surveyed the few people who were in the town centre for their views of Farage and his party. Each person gave me one of two responses: ‘Never heard of him’ or ‘Love him and I’m going to vote UKIP from now on’.

Back in the office, I phoned the leader of the local borough council, a Conservative called Paul Mason.

Knowing I was leaving in a few weeks, I decided to wind him up.

‘How was Farage then?’ he asked.

‘You’re fucked, Paul, everyone’s going to vote UKIP!’ I replied.

‘No! You’re joking?! Really? REALLY?’

‘Seriously! Stand down now, Paul, they’re coming for you!’

In the election on 3 May, UKIP won 147 council seats across England. The party’s share of the vote was 22 per cent – higher than the Liberal Democrats.

However, luckily for Mason, I was wrong about UKIP’s popularity in Hoddesdon – in fact, UKIP didn’t win a single seat in the entire county of Hertfordshire.

But this was just the beginning for Nigel Farage and me.

CHAPTER 2

A BLOOM TOO FAR

UKIP ANNUAL CONFERENCE, WESTMINSTER – SATURDAY 21 SEPTEMBER 2013

A

FTER ITS LOCAL ELECTION SUCCESS

, the country seemed to wake up to UKIP. Well, much of the media did anyway.

A party that, for all intents and purposes, was nothing more than an anti-Brussels pressure group suddenly had a sizeable representation in town halls across the UK.

Perhaps people cared more about translation services, climate change officers and wind turbines than we – the media – had previously thought. Of the thirty-five councils that were up for grabs in the elections, UKIP had representation on twenty-four of them – giving it 147 councillors in total.

It was most successful in Kent, where it picked up seventeen councillors, in Lincolnshire, where it won sixteen, in Norfolk, where it got fifteen, and in Cambridgeshire, where it secured twelve.

The question for UKIP was what to do next. The summer was spent pondering that very question.

Not by me, however. I wasn’t that bothered, to be honest, and was instead focused on my new job at the Daily Express online. A work day consisted of re-writing what was on the newswires, or slightly changing news agency copy lifted from local papers, adding a couple of pictures and putting it up on the website. It was a world away from being a local journalist, where you have to actually leave the office and find stories, build up contacts and work a patch. After a few months of copying and pasting articles written by other journalists on to the website, I was desperate to get out of the office, and realised the party conferences would be the perfect opportunity to find some stories of my own.

It was too late for me to get accreditation to the Conservative, Labour or Lib Dem conferences, but I was able to get on the list for the Green and UKIP meetings.

My editor wasn’t too keen, but when I explained I would be going in my own time and not missing a day of uploading to the web, he agreed to fund my travel and pay me for the work (I was still technically a freelancer, so was paid by the shift).

First up was the Green Party conference in Brighton, held from 13–16 September.

I went along on the second day, and was one of only a few journalists present. Held in the huge Metropole hotel by the seafront, the conference saw chilled-out environmentalists from across the country ponder the most important question of the age: why aren’t we as popular as UKIP?

After much soul-searching, the conclusion was that people don’t like being told not to use their cars, not to take cheap flights and not to expect cheap heating bills. But people do like a man with a cigarette and a beer saying how everything will be better once the UK leaves the EU.

The Green Party officials were all very nice to me, even though I was from the Daily Express (hardly the paper of choice for them, I imagine), and I even got an interview with leader Natalie Bennett in the small press room next to the main conference room. In the evening, bowls of pasta were handed out at a quiz night, and some locally brewed ale was on tap.

It was nice. Everything was nice. The food was nice. The people were nice. Nice. Nice. Nice.

The next week, I went to the UKIP conference. It was not the same.

The People’s Army had organised what would be its biggest meeting yet, right in the heart of Westminster, at the Methodist Central Hall. The hall was built in 1911 and, over the years, has played host to speeches from Sir Winston Churchill, Dr Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi.

It was the venue for the first United Nations General Assembly meeting in 1946, and in 1966 the World Cup trophy was stolen from the hall while it was on display ahead of that year’s tournament. And now, in 2013, it was playing host to the UK Independence Party.

The hall is in full view of the House of Commons, meaning Kippers could pretend for a couple of days they were part of the Westminster elite which they so hated.

As with the Green Party conference, I missed the first day. But, unlike the Green Party conference, I actually missed something that happened.

That first morning, Nigel Farage had given his keynote speech, in which he predicted UKIP would win the following year’s European elections.

Other speeches at the event seemed to be gaining traction, with policies on fracking making it onto the lunchtime news bulletins. Could it be that UKIP were moving from a single-issue, single-person party? Was this the turning point when the media started reporting on its policies, not its gaffes?

No.

Later that day, a UKIP MEP hit a journalist.

It wasn’t exactly a knock-out punch, but Godfrey Bloom’s slap of Michael Crick with a conference programme would have got him sent off in a game of football. (With an additional ban for having a conference programme with him on the pitch in the first place.)

The farce began when Bloom was recorded at a fringe meeting, focusing on how to get women into politics, describing female UKIP members as ‘sluts’ for not cleaning behind their fridges. The recording was published, and Bloom was immediately confronted by a horde of journalists when he left the meeting. A perplexed Bloom explained he meant ‘sluts’ as in ‘slovenly’ and it was a joke. Ha ha ha.

He might have just about got away with that explanation but, perhaps sensing his time was up, he decided to really go out in a blaze of glory.

After Crick – one of the best wind-up merchants in the business – asked Bloom why there were no black faces on the front cover of the conference programme, just a sea of white ones, the UKIP man exploded.

In a complete misunderstanding of political correctness, Bloom called Crick a ‘racist’ for bringing it up and stormed off. As Crick followed him, Bloom hit him on the head with the conference programme he was holding, shouting ‘disgraceful’ at the same time. It was, of course, all caught on video and within minutes was all over the internet.

‘UKIP MEP hits journalist’ was blazoned across the news channels, the footage went viral, and UKIP were doing what they did best – screwing things up.

It was not the first time Bloom had caused embarrassment for the party.

A month before he hit Michael Crick and called him a racist, the MEP hit the headlines for decrying foreign aid going to ‘Bongo Bongo Land’.

It was a bizarre turn of phrase, almost so comical it struggled to be offensive. It was as if Bloom had watched an old episode of Love Thy Neighbour, mistook it for a docu-soap, and decided to adopt its language.

On 7 August 2013, an unrepentant Bloom appeared on BBC Radio 4’s flagship news programme, Today.

When asked what he would do if UKIP told him to ‘mind your language’, Bloom replied: ‘I’d say, Right-o, sorry, sorry everybody if I’ve offended anybody in Bongo Bongo Land. I shall write the ambassador at the Court of St James’s and apologise to him personally.

After Bloom’s latest headline-grabbing antics, Farage went into full ‘I am a serious leader’ mode, and removed the whip from his friend immediately. He took to the conference stage to tell delegates any media coverage of the conference was now ‘dead’.

Farage said:

The trouble with Godfrey is that he is not a racist, he’s not an extremist or any of those things and he’s not even anti-women, but he has a sort of rather old-fashioned Territorial Army sense of humour, which does not translate very well in modern Britain.

We can’t have any one individual, however fun or flamboyant or entertaining or amusing they are, destroying UKIP’s national conference and that is what he’s done today.

I’m sad about that, but we can’t tolerate this.

Suffice to say, when I woke up the next morning to go to the conference, I was in a slightly more apprehensive mood than the week before when I was travelling to see those lovely people in the Green Party.

I had visions of the People’s Army staying up long into the night, plotting their revenge on the media for provoking dear old Godfrey. Perhaps they had created a giant wicker man in the image of Michael Crick, which they would herd journalists into and set ablaze outside the House of Commons. I considered making a big sign that proclaimed ‘Don’t worry! I work for the Daily Express and we agree with your stance on the EU!’ in the hope of being spared.

Or maybe: ‘Nigel, I agree! Dexys Midnight Runners ARE shit!’

Having got my affairs in order, shared a tearful goodbye with my girlfriend and sent a letter to my solicitor to be opened in the event of my death, I boarded the Tube to Westminster.

Walking up the entrance to the Methodist Hall, there seemed to be no obvious signs of hostility. A handful of men in suits with purple rosettes were smoking outside the hall, but they paid me no attention as I entered the building. There was no holding pen full of journalists, Michael Crick’s head wasn’t on a spike and, if there was a wicker man, it was well hidden. I found the press accreditation desk and, without even showing proof of who I was, I was given a media pass.

The corridor outside the main hall was full of Kippers, perusing the stalls stacked with UKIP badges, mugs and copies of Farage’s autobiography.

I noticed the table selling the conference programmes had rebranded them as ‘fly swatters’.

The hundreds of delegates were pretty much what I expected: almost universally white, middle class and southern. They were, in the main, smartly dressed, and the conference had the feel of a rugby club inviting back old boys and their wives for a celebratory event.

There was some commotion over by the staircase that led up to the floor I was on.

Kippers were gathering round someone I couldn’t quite see, and a camera crew was filming as they posed for pictures with the individual in question.

I pushed forward, assuming it would be the main man himself: Nigel Farage.

I was half right – it was the main man, but today that man was Michael Crick.

One by one, Kippers were remonstrating with him for stitching up dear old Godfrey, before politely asking him to pose for a photo with them. Far from being shackled, Crick was being indulged.

As I looked on, I realised that I was standing next to two of the few Kippers other than Farage I actually recognised: the disgraced former Tory MP Neil Hamilton and his wife Christine.

The words ‘disgraced former Tory MP’ could have been created just for Neil Hamilton.

Elected to the Commons in 1983, Hamilton came to wider public attention when he was accused of taking money from Harrods owner Mohamed Al-Fayed to ask questions in Parliament. Hamilton began legal proceedings against The Guardian over the ‘cash-for-questions’ allegations, but then dropped the case and settled out of court.

A parliamentary inquiry in July 1997 concluded Hamilton was guilty of taking cash for questions, but it didn’t need to boot him out of Parliament – the voters had already done that.

In that year’s general election, held two months before the inquiry published its findings, Hamilton lost Tatton – the fourth-safest Tory seat in the country – to former war journalist Martin Bell. Bell stood as an independent, and Labour and the Lib Dems decided not to contest the seat to allow the anti-corruption campaigner a free run at Hamilton.

Since leaving Parliament, Hamilton had lost a libel case to Mohamed Al-Fayed, and became something of television personality by appearing on chat shows and, along with his wife Christine, a Louis Theroux documentary.

Christine Hamilton had also built up a media profile, taking part in reality TV shows such as I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here! and Celebrity MasterChef, sitting in dictionary corner on Countdown and even having her own short-lived chat show on digital channel BBC Choice.

As character witnesses go, I’m sure Bloom wouldn’t have picked Hamilton, but I decided to ask him his views on the previous days debacle.

‘Godfrey is a good friend of mine, but he did behave in an idiotic fashion,’ he said. ‘He shouldn’t have reacted to Michael Crick as he did. His conduct was indefensible. He shouldn’t, at his age and with all his experience, have blown up as he did. Crick is an irritating little squit, there’s no doubt about that, and I’m sure he’s just as complimentary about me.’

With a handshake, Hamilton was gone.

I sent a message to my father: ‘You’ll never guess who I’ve just met! Neil Hamilton!’

His reply: ‘Make sure you wash your hands.’

Fair point, I thought.

I ventured into the conference hall itself to see if anything  approaching a news story was about to break out.

I sat down in the press area to the left of the stage, just in time to hear one particularly angry UKIP member launch into a passionate defence of his party and decry the treatment doled out to it by the media. Managing the impressive feat of shouting through gritted teeth, he angrily – and repeatedly – denounced Crick and his hateful employers, the BBC.

Except Crick was working for Channel 4.

The audience members twigged this, and every accusation laid at the door of the Beeb was met with cries of ‘Four!’ from delegates. The poor chap on stage was so caught up in his diatribe that he misheard ‘Four!’ as ‘More!’, and so rounded on the BBC again. All the journalists positioned stage left were joyfully tweeting out the confusion. The ranter still received a hearty round of applause when, like a hurricane, he eventually blew himself out.

So far, so UKIP.

By now it was mid-afternoon, and I was getting worried. I needed a story to justify me getting out of the office, and I had missed the main one by twenty-four hours.

A brief chat with the Hamiltons wasn’t going to cut the mustard. What I really needed was an interview with Farage. I contacted the head of UKIP’s press office, Gawain Towler, to see if there was any chance of a chat with the leader. Towler and I had spoken many times on the phone but never actually met, and he told me to come and find him in the next-door pub – the Westminster Arms. He said I would notice him by his red trousers and, by Christ, he wasn’t wrong.

Ukippers must get a discount on corduroy, as, like Farage in Hoddesdon, he was wearing hideously bright clothes made out of the fabric.

He was already holding court outside the Westminster Arms when I arrived, surrounded by numerous Kippers hanging on his every word.

If you ever get the chance to meet Towler, take it.

He comes across as a complete buffoon. Incredibly well spoken, and capable of a beguiling turn of phrase, but he still often acts like Tim Nice-But-Dim from Harry Enfield and Chums. Except he doesn’t look ‘nice’. With his foppish hair, angular features and scar running down one of his cheeks, he has the air of a Droog from A Clockwork Orange. At any moment, one senses, he could break out into ultraviolence.

Of course, he is not dim – well, not all the time. But he does have a mischievous edge. He was co-editor of a Brussels-based satirical magazine called The Sprout, which lampooned the EU on a monthly basis. His personal blog was a mixture of diary pieces from Brussels and personal diatribes. There were a bizarre few weeks when he just posted poems by Enoch Powell, and another occasion when he claimed a male Tory had vowed to destroy him after he rejected the man’s sexual advances when the pair were at university – although this post was taken down almost as soon as it had gone up.

I went to the bar to order a pint of beer and overheard the barman explaining to two Kippers that they couldn’t have any Spitfire ale as the pub’s supply had been drunk dry.

‘Ah,’ said one, who was in his early seventies, ‘in which case I’ll have a pint of … Asahi.’

‘You don’t want that!’ said his friend – or possibly twin brother – ‘That’s Japanese beer!’

‘Crikey, good point. I best have something British – pint of Foster’s, please.’

Inwardly laughing at the misunderstanding of the origins of lagers aside, I found myself enjoying my time with the Ukippers.

Gawain was holding court outside the pub, and his audience was ever growing.

A steady stream of beer was finding its way into my hands, and talking to the party supporters was proving to be an interesting experience. There were initial reservations when I was introduced as a member of the press, but after I told them I worked for the Daily Express I was considered a ‘friendly’.

Men were dominating the conversation with their deep, plummy voices, and the few women who were there listened politely.

But one woman seemed at odds with the men around her, and not just because of her gender.

She was a schoolteacher in her late thirties, and something of a rarity – a former Labour supporter.

Unlike the boorish accents of the voices swirling in the September air outside the pub in the centre of Westminster, her tone was much more in keeping with the comprehensive education I had received. I and Andrew Lowry – a freelance journalist I had teamed up with for the day – immediately realised that, among all of the normal Kippers, she was the most interesting.

We asked her about UKIP, and why she had joined the party. She looked unsure whether to answer, but we assured her that even though we were part of the nasty media, we weren’t trying to trip her up, catch her out, or trick her into hitting us.

She explained how she felt let down by Labour, and didn’t feel comfortable with the changes in the community in which she lived.

It was a perfectly reasonable point, devoid of anything particularly inflammatory.

Lowry and I asked if she would repeat it for the benefit of our tape recorders – the several pints we had both gleefully imbibed meant our trusty shorthand was a no-go. It was at this point that the two men flanking her began to look uneasy.

‘I’m not sure about that,’ said one.

‘Why, what are you planning to do with it?’ said another.

‘Well, it’s a really interesting point that you are making,’ I said, addressing the woman who had been speaking to us, ‘and the fact that you are a former Labour supporter that’s joined UKIP is a change from lots of others here.’

The two men were not convinced at first, but then relented.

She repeated her points again, this time with two Dictaphones pointed towards her.

But when we started asking questions – UKIP’s attitude to women, the complaints of racism and divisive politics – the two men stepped in. I mean they physically stepped in, forming a kind of shield around her.

She seemed to have no problem answering the questions, but the two men – who, from what I could gather, were just party members, not members of the press office – clearly decided the woman needed to be protected from the nasty journalists.

Or maybe they were protecting us from her! Maybe she was a loud and proud racist, ready to spew forth her neo-Nazi views at the slightest provocation. Perhaps beneath her smart blazer and white blouse was the beating heart of a violent, psychopathic homophobe, who spent her spare time planning an anti-gay killing spree. Maybe all she needed to set her off was a couple of questions from journalists about UKIP’s attitude towards those people who aren’t white British men. In which case, maybe those two gentlemen were actually specialist bodyguards, who were protecting Lowry and me from this crazed UKIP-supporting schoolteacher.

Or maybe they just didn’t like two male journalists talking to one of their women. Maybe they thought she couldn’t possibly justify her own views and beliefs under mild scrutiny. Maybe they thought that, as men, they knew best and had to protect the little woman in their midst.

Whatever the reason, they stepped in, she stopped talking, and we went and got another drink.

I was still on the ale, but Lowry was on the Asahi. ‘Poofter!’ was one Kipper’s view on his choice of drink.

It was by now almost 6 p.m., and the conference was still going on in Central Hall. Not that anyone either in the pub or outside on the pavement seemed to care.

I asked Towler if he felt he should be in the conference centre, making sure no one had set fire to Michael Crick or organised a pitchfork-wielding mob with the plan of storming the nearby House of Commons or the BBC.

‘I’m a press officer, you’re a member of the press. I would say I’m doing my job!’ he replied.

‘Will I get to speak to Farage?’ I asked, conscious that all I had so far was half an interview with a woman no one had ever heard of, a ranting Ukipper blaming the BBC for Channel 4’s Michael Crick, and Neil Hamilton.

‘Yes, yes, he’ll be along shortly,’ came the reply.

He was right. I discovered one of the rules of the universe that day: if you stay in a pub long enough, Nigel Farage will eventually show up.

I almost didn’t notice him. I was expecting a media scrum to be stalking his every move, with paparazzi bulbs exploding incessantly.

I expected his disciples to be laying down palm-tree leaves in his path. I didn’t expect him to just walk around the corner, by himself, save for his two bodyguards.

After someone had got him a beer and given him a cigarette, I approached him.

‘Nigel, you probably don’t remember me but I spoke to you in Hoddesdon about six months

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