RICHARD PORRITT: Gatecrashing the Brexiteers’ big day out
- Credit: PA Wire/PA Images
Rattled by the progress of the People's Vote campaign, and the continued disintegration of their Brexit dreams, Leavers held a rally. RICHARD PORRITT went along to assess the mood in the enemy camp.
While Remainers are on the march most weekends, driving the demand for a People's Vote at protest rallies across Britain, Brexiteers don't seem to get out much.
Since their victory in 2016, rank-and-file Leavers have largely surrendered the public space to their rivals, just as their leaders have squandered the initiative. So last weekend's Leave Means Leave rally, at the University of Bolton Stadium, gave a rare opportunity to take the grassroots temperature and – with the People's Vote now very much in prospect – see who is still marching for the cause.
The answer is, for the most part, middle-aged, middle-class folk, who filled the stadium car park with Range Rovers, BMWs and Audis. A preponderance of tweed and wax jackets, redolent of the distinctive fashion look pioneered by Paul Nuttall and others, gave it the feel of a UKIP gathering. Indeed, Nigel Farage was to provide the day's star turn – although the presence of Labour MP Kate Hoey and former Brexit secretary David Davis underlined that this was a cross-party gathering.
And the event certainly attracted all elements of the Leave spectrum – including the extremes: In the car park I was greeted by a skinhead in a black bomber jacket. 'Can I give you this?' He thrust a leaflet into my hand and explained: 'She's the future of this country, check the website out; you'll love it.'
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As he spoke he jabbed his finger on the picture of Anne Marie Waters scowling back from the pamphlet. Waters was beaten to the leadership of UKIP by Henry Bolton a year ago. She has previously claimed the European Union is conspiring to turn the continent into a Muslim state. After quitting UKIP, she founded the far-right For Britain, which – while kept out in the cold, in the car park – is now scrabbling for supporters among Brexit's foot soldiers.
Back in the queue the chatter had moved on to how Sky News and the BBC wouldn't dare cover the event – both did, along with countless other media – and how there must be at least 10,000 people waiting to get in. The event was held in the bowels of the stadium and at a push there were no more than 2,000 people inside. That said, there were no empty seats either.
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Gerald and his son Justin seemed typical of the Leavers at the rally. They didn't want their picture taken and wouldn't give their last names. They are 'wary of the media', Justin says.
I ask if they had got one of the For Britain leaflets. Both nod and Gerald adds: 'I threw it straight in the bin. Just because I want us to leave the EU does not mean I want to make Britain a country that does not welcome foreign culture. I am not scared or wary of people from overseas.
'I voted to leave because I think Britain will be better off out of the EU. I did consider the argument that we should stay in and reform it but I just don't think that would have happened. I think the EU works for countries like Germany and France but for us I just think we can do so much better without it. We have far more in common with the United States and Australia than we do with Europe. I think we should embrace those friendships.
'I think we have become more concerned in the last few months about a second referendum. That is why I am here today. It would be wholly undemocratic. How can we ask the same question again? What if the result is for Leave again? Will the Remain lot demand yet another vote? Best of five?'
But, in a sign of how families are still divided over Brexit, Justin admits his mother voted Remain. And she wants another vote. 'Yes, we still argue about it,' he says.
'But that is how politics has always been. We all want the best for this country, we just disagree on how to achieve that.
'She thinks we are mad coming here today. She reckons it will be full of racists. But it shouldn't be about anything like that. I am tired of people thinking that just because I voted Brexit I am a racist. It is not true.'
But what about the lies? What about the £350million for the NHS? 'The Leave campaign were a bit naughty at times – I'll admit that and I am sure lots of other people here would as well. But look at what the Remain campaign did – they told us the economy would tank immediately, that there could even be a Third World War. That was just as bad,' Justin adds.
Outside, the Leave Means Leave battle bus proves an unmissable draw for the faithful who posed next to slogans including 'Stop the Brexit betrayal' and 'Believe in Britain'. There was no mention of that £350m for the NHS this time.
Inside, the only thing you could buy was Leave Means Leave baseball hats and beer – and the crowd indulged in both. When the star turn arrives, there is a rush to the back of the hall. Everyone, it seems, wants to shake Farage's hand.
Chris and Julie Townend came from Leigh for the rally. And they brought their nine-year-old daughter Keeley. As the PA system boomed out why Theresa May must 'chuck Chequers', while the crowd waited for the speeches, Chris bounced around on his tip-toes trying to get a glimpse of his 'hero' Farage.
'He should be knighted for what he has done for this country,' the 48-year-old said. 'I've been a fan for a lot of years although I never voted UKIP. I've always voted Conservative and Nigel is a proper Tory in my mind. That is what we need to get the party back.
'I think we will get Brexit through. It has to happen. In fact I am more confident than ever that we will get a decent one now the EU is playing silly beggars. It is the best thing that could happen I think, because we have more chance of getting a no-deal Brexit. We don't want to be shackled to the EU any longer. It is time to turn our backs on them and get on with rebuilding the damage that has been done to this country.'
When Farage did take the stage – he spoke after Hoey, who went down well with the crowd – the only cheer louder than Chris' was his daughter Keeley. I asked her if she even knew who he was: 'Dad talks about him a lot.'
Farage explained how he had been forced out of retirement to ensure Brexit happens. To cheers and applause, the 'gangsters' and 'bully boys' of the EU were told to 'read some history books' about how Britain reacts 'when we are up against it'.
To almost mass hysteria Farage said out-of-touch 'career politicians' did not want to respect the referendum and a renewed, cross-party campaign was needed to stay on course for Brexit and counter the 'negative' narrative in the media.
'I think it's about time that our elected politicians began to feel the heat over the extent of the betrayal,' he said.
After Farage, Davis went last. He rattled on about technical details of leaving the EU, leaving the crowd, for the most part, rather bemused. Here was Brexit in a nutshell: Passion aplenty. Detail, desperately unconvincing.
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