This was the week when Nigel Farage was going to prove to everyone that Ukip is neither a one-man band nor a one-trick pony. He succeeded in achieving the precise opposite. The delegates unleashed on Westminster’s Central Hall appeared less like a coherent political party and more like the cast of Are You Being Served on a reunion tour. Perhaps inevitably, events unfolded – or unravelled, to be more accurate – at pace and with hilarity. At times it felt like one was watching the entire boxed set of The Thick of It on fast forward.
It all kicked off with a Channel 4 exposé the evening before the conference. Michael Crick uncovered evidence of a rather heated teachers’ meeting, during Farage’s Dulwich College days, assessing his suitability as a prefect, complete with a letter of objection describing him as someone who publicly professed views which were “racist and neo-fascist”. Farage’s defence seems to boil down to: ‘Ah! Youth.’
By the beginning of the conference proper, a heavily made-up Farage, sweating under the lights – an apt metaphor for his “everyman” image melting under closer public scrutiny – made a keynote speech which even the Daily Mail described as “flat and managerial”. Meanwhile, Ukip MEP and senior spokesman Godfrey Bloom was busy at a fringe meeting describing women who do not clean behind the fridge as “sluts”.
Questioned about it outside the hall, Bloom said he was only joking and called the reporter a “sad little man”. His aide tried to suggest that Bloom had used the term in its more antiquated meaning of “slovenly”. The two versions of events are, of course, mutually exclusive; if the word was used without its double entendre connotations, there is no joke. Challenged by Michael Crick over the lack of any black faces among the dozens which adorned the front of Ukip’s conference brochure, Bloom proceeded to smack him over the head, with said brochure.
Cue Nigel Farage trotting out the usual excuses about Godfrey being a colourful character. LOLZ. As if this were not an MEP and the party’s defence spokesman – their defence spokesman, for pity’s sake – but a hapless Carmen Miranda impersonator who wandered into the hall by accident. Cue Diane James explaining that, yes, the party may attract some controversial characters, but the thorough vetting process meant only the best made it to their European election candidate list; she conveniently glossed over the fact that Bloom was one who had made it through this vetting process. What were the controversial characters who didn’t make it like?
As it became clear that the usual flannel would not fly, Bloom had the party whip withdrawn. Irritated, he continued to give interviews. They included one explaining that if journalists showed “impertinence”, they could expect much worse than Crick and one in which he asked the BBC’s Allegra Stratton “has your mother never called you a slut?”, then proceeded to tell her she had no sense of humour.
As was, perhaps, foreshadowed by the fact that Ukip shared Central Hall during their conference with a Carry On Memorabilia Convention, the comedy gold continued to flow the next day. A personal highlight was the anti-immigration speech, by first generation immigrant Amjad Bashir, which opened with “I wasn’t born in Yorkshire, but I came as soon as I could”. By the end of the two-day fiasco, “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” seemed like a rather charitable assessment.
Now the laughter has died down, however, it is time to assess seriously the politics of the Ukip “phenomenon”. I am not comforted by the fact Ukip has finally withdrawn their whip from Godfrey Bloom. Instead, I note that he is the fifth MEP out of their 13 elected to have the whip withdrawn. Instead, I worry about the fact that he was the best they could muster after their thorough vetting process. Instead, I question why the whip was not withdrawn when he addressed the European Parliament while drunk, or when he said employers would have to be mad to employ single, young women, or when he referred to the whole of the developing world as “bongo bongo land”.
I am not really concerned about Nigel Farage’s reported racist comments in 1981. I am concerned about his outrageous 2005 manifesto pledge to check any incoming migrants for communicable diseases. His alleged youthful neo-fascist views give me little pause for thought. His current association with neo-fascist parties at the European level gives me sleepless nights.
Before the conference Farage mused that they have no real ambition to form a government, but that – who knows? – maybe in 2015 they will find themselves holding “the balance of power”. In this age of coalitions, how many Godfrey Blooms lurk in Farage’s shadow, ready to assume ministerial posts? Maybe Ukip are a one-man band and a one-trick pony, but he is a reckless man with a very dangerous trick.