PETERBOROUGH, England — The audience was packed to the rafters at the KingsGate Conference Centre, and the crowd was feeling a little giddy, a little rebellious, chanting “Nigel! Nigel!” as the man himself, Nigel Farage, processed into the arena, ready to rumble.
This is an election few thought would occur, given that the country voted to leave the European Union three years ago and was scheduled to quit the bloc a month and a half ago. Will Britain’s 73 new representatives to the E.U.’s legislative body serve for days, weeks or years? Who knows?
The chaos is made more sensational by the forecast that this upstart, single-issue party is going to blow everyone else out of the water, with the potential to influence how Brexit turns out and how long Prime Minister Theresa May stays in power.
The demands of the Brexit Party seem simple: Get us out of the E.U. Now. Honor the 2016 referendum result. Do Brexit.
As with the 2016 Brexit campaign, the message comes wrapped in populist rhetoric: that the elites cannot be trusted and the experts are wrong. But the 2019 language adds: The political class is riddled with “cowards” and “saboteurs” and “traitors.”
“We don’t live in a democratic country,” Farage told the crowd in the country that gave the world the mother of parliaments. Give us Brexit, he said, or “no more Mr. Nice Guy.”
If Farage is a nettle for May, what should be terrifying for her Conservative Party are the crowds at Brexit Party rallies.
These 1,500 in Peterborough last week were not natural rebels, but Brexit has managed to radicalize them. They are, or rather once were, mostly Conservatives. Many of my seatmates confessed they had voted Tory all their long lives.
Nor were these the dead-enders in the U.K. Independence Party — Farage’s former perch — which has swung so far to the right as to embrace felonious anti-Muslim crusader Tommy Robinson.
No, this audience skewed heavily toward gray-haired, sporty pensioners, dressed in wool cardigans and sensible shoes, former office managers and school librarians, who enjoyed lawn bowling and cottage gardening, and volunteered at the local charity shop.
These looked like Tories, scorned.
And in Peterborough last week — as in every rally and campaign stop since — they were clamoring for the prime minister’s head.
The people are seriously vexed over her botched Brexit.
“I’ve never voted against a Conservative, ever, in 50 years,” said Aileen Troughton, 72, a retired market researcher in the audience. “But I’m fed up with being told we didn’t know what we were voting for” in the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Her friend, Mary Brownlow, 62, a farmer’s wife, said, “We voted to get out. Now get us out.”
May maintains that Britain can still leave the E.U. before July, when bloc parliamentarians take up their seats. But the evidence doesn’t support her optimism. She is expected to present her version of Brexit to Britain’s Parliament one more time next month, and Parliament is expected, one more time, to reject it.
Onstage in Peterborough, Farage strode back and forth with a headset mic, like a TED Talk visionary, excoriating May, “who’s turned out to be not just the worst prime minister in the history of this nation but the most duplicitous and dishonest one.”
Howls came from the audience at the mere mention of May’s name. “Booooo!”
Farage called her Brexit deal — already thrice defeated in the House of Commons, by her own party members — a treaty “that would only be signed by a government defeated in war.”
“She has reduced us to a state of national humiliation,” Farage said. “She has made us a laughingstock in the eyes of the rest of the world — and yet her own gutless, spineless, career politician MPs haven’t had the courage to get rid of her!”
It is no accident that alongside Farage, the standout campaigner for the Brexit Party in Peterborough and elsewhere turns out to be the 71-year-old Ann Widdecombe, a Tory MP for 13 years, who now openly mocks May at rallies and dismisses her former Conservative Party colleagues in Parliament as a gaggle of “patronizing nincompoops.”
May’s Conservative Party was clobbered in local elections this month, suffering the largest loss of council seats in years — a drubbing largely blamed on pique over Brexit.
Opinion polls suggest the Tories are about to be creamed again in the European Parliament election on May 23. A recent survey published in the Observer newspaper showed the Brexit Party topping a whopping 34 percent, which would make it the most popular party in the country.
Traditionally, anti-establishment parties do well in these low-turnout elections that take place every five years. UKIP won last time, with 27 percent of the vote, while the mainstream Labour Party claimed 24 percent and the Conservatives took 23.
But more alarming for the two main parties this time around is that public interest is unusually high — and the Brexit Party is polling better than the two combined.
The governing Conservative Party, which has barely campaigned, is down to 11 percent in the same poll, alongside niche parties such as the Greens.
Opposition Labour, which has been criticized for its ambiguous position on Brexit, isn’t doing so hot, either — at 21 percent.
A big win for the Brexit Party could push May and her Conservatives to hurry up and pass her deal, or, as Farage prefers, leave the E.U. with no deal. Writing in the Guardian, former Labour prime minister Tony Blair described the stakes as: “This is not a vote to choose a prime minister or a government. It is a vote for the Farage Brexit — or against it.”
A big Brexit Party win also could be used as ammo to jettison May sooner instead of later. Already, Conservative backbenchers are pushing May for a timeline of her departure, and the list of those positioning for her job is growing long.
Alternatively, a good showing from the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats or Change UK party might embolden those in Parliament who want a second referendum on Brexit.
Or the election could simply contribute to the ongoing muddle — in which case Farage has pledged to use his party to push for a general election and smash the two-party hegemony.
Farage is probably best known in America for his appearances on Fox News and for being one of President Trump’s favorite European politicians. Trump once tweeted that he thought Farage would do a “great job” as British ambassador to the United States.
In Britain, Farage is known as both a charismatic and controversial figure. He has tried, and failed, to get elected to the British Parliament on seven occasions. But he has served as a member of the European Parliament since 1999, undermining the institution from within by taking his salary and yet only rarely showing up for work.
In a feisty exchange on the BBC’s “The Andrew Marr Show” last weekend, Farage took umbrage at being quizzed about comments he has made about his admiration for Vladimir Putin, his skepticism of climate change and wanting foreigners with HIV stopped from using the National Health Service.
On social media, many thought Farage had performed poorly — cracked under pressure. Others called it a win.
On the show, Farage told Marr, “This is absolutely ludicrous. I’ve never in my life seen a more ridiculous interview than this. You are not prepared to talk about what is going on in this country today. You’re in denial, the BBC is in denial, the Tory and Labour parties are in denial.”
Then he predicted the Brexit Party will pull off a “bigger surprise” than anyone expects.
Adam reported from London.