Under an unseasonably warm spring sun, a lineup of retirees crowded the sidewalk, waiting to get into Brentwood’s hottest nightclub.
The Sugar Hut, in Essex county, northeast of London, attracts British reality TV stars, but not usually senior citizens.
The group had lined up to hear the populist, anti-establishment rhetoric of a man they view as Brexit’s saviour.
Nigel Farage — a British member of the European Parliament for 20 years who’s made a career of criticizing those he calls “career politicians” — is back.
Poised to make a splash in Thursday’s European elections, his upstart Brexit Party is polling ahead of all others in voter intentions, including the U.K.’s governing Conservatives and opposition Labour.
“I’ve seen him before,” Alastair Dick said with a smile, sitting outside the Sugar Hut. The armed forces veteran came wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a hand wrapped in the Union Jack, making a rude gesture to the European flag.
Farage, Dick said, “is the only one who stuck to his guns” on leaving the EU.
Best known as the longtime face of the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP), Farage quit the party last year to briefly sit in the EU Parliament as an independent, officially because he felt the party he had represented became too intolerant under new leadership.
Norma Saggers, who was wearing a white Brexit Party T-shirt, said she was never interested in politics until she heard Farage speak. “I was just blown away by his passion and enthusiasm.”
Reviled by pro-European Britons, Farage could be handed more influence than ever before if favourable polls reflect the outcome of this week’s vote. Results are expected Sunday.
“Either you [the government] listen to us and deliver Brexit or at the next general election, we will come and replace you,” Farage told CBC in a brief interview during his appearance in Brentwood.
This week’s EU elections are both unusually contentious and closely watched in Britain.
Following the country’s 2016 Brexit vote, the U.K. was supposed to give up its 73 European Parliament seats along with its EU membership by March 29, 2019. At the last EU elections in 2014, UKIP won the most seats (24) but defections and resignations have left them with only four.
Watch Nigel Farage tell CBC ‘I want us to be independent, just as you are, Canada.’
The government deadlock over how to extricate the country has left Britain still tied to EU institutions, including its parliament based in Strasbourg, France and Brussels. Brexit is still due to be delivered by Oct. 31.
“I want us to be independent, just as you are, Canada,” Farage told CBC.
“You would not want NAFTA to become a political union and for a court in Mexico to decide how you should live your lives in Canada,” he said. “That’s what’s happened to us,” referring to the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction in Britain.
The European Parliament brings together 751 elected members from 28 countries. They approve or reject continent-wide legislation, including EU trade agreements and energy efficiency standards.
Farage’s party is advocating for an immediate EU withdrawal with no divorce deal, despite the economic and social challenges that would follow. It is, in fact, the Brexit Party’s only policy.
Favouring straight talk and simple solutions over complex arguments has made Farage a highly regarded figure among hardline British Euroskeptics.
A leading polling analyst calls Farage “the most important British politician in 21st century politics.” John Curtice, a University of Strathclyde politics professor, credits Farage’s long-running anti-EU campaign as being a catalyst for the “Leave” win in the 2016 referendum.
But Farage is not everyone’s cup of tea. When he was doused in a milkshake by a prankster on the campaign trail this week, then openly laughed at by passersby, the incident highlighted Farage’s reputation as a polarizing figure.
He once acknowledged he’s “a bit like Marmite,” the highly flavoured yeast extract spread that is loved by its consumers and hated by others.
The Brexit Party’s anticipated success is “deeply frustrating” to Charles Tannock, a longtime Conservative member of the European Parliament (MEP) for London.
Having seen Farage and his former UKIP MEP colleagues at work, Tannock says he knows “the kind of people who will be elected for the Brexit Party. They are not engaged politicians, they don’t take the European Parliament seriously.”
The website Vote Watch Europe ranks Farage 745th among 751 MEPs for participation in parliamentary votes.
Shouting ‘from the sidelines’
“Every few years, he pops up, he shouts from the sidelines,” British Prime Minister Theresa May said of Farage last week when she launched the Tory campaign for EU elections. “He doesn’t work constructively in the national interest.”
Asked what difference he plans to make in Brussels that he hasn’t made before, Farage said “there will just be more of us.”
Though the party is not expected to form government in the near future, observers say Farage’s ilk could secure greater influence on public policy with the promise of a hard EU exit. Anticipating success in this week’s vote, the Brexit Party intends to demand a formal role in British exit negotiations.
And the new party’s surge in the polls has some in the governing Conservatives considering an alliance.
“The Brexit Party has the potential to wreak havoc on the Conservative vote in our own seats,” Tory MP Crispin Blunt admitted in the Daily Telegraph. He called on his colleagues to form a pact with the Brexit Party, since it’s “blindingly obvious that we can’t win [the next general] election on our own.”
Support for the Tories and opposition Labour has melted away as Britons blame both for bungling Brexit.
Roughly half of voters want to stay in the EU, but pro-European parties failed to come to a vote-sharing agreement ahead of the European elections. In England, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and upstart Change UK are all expected to split “Remain” votes, which could benefit the Brexit Party in overall seat count.
Carole Tongue, a former Labour MEP who’s running for Change UK in London, said she’ll consider Thursday’s outcome a victory if Remain-supporting partes win a bigger vote share than those advocating for Leave.
“We’re getting across a ‘Remain’ message: ‘Stop Brexit. Remain. Stop Brexit. Remain,'” she said in an interview. Tongue said the party had to simplify its message to match the Brexit Party’s straightforward plan, which has been easy for supporters to understand.
Within five weeks of its launch in April, Farage said the Brexit Party had received donations of at least 25 pounds ($42 Cdn) from 100,000 supporters. Its fundraising hasn’t stopped despite questions about murky donations.
At the rally at the nightclub in Brentwood, Farage promised the crowd to launch a “peaceful political revolution” to replace the two main parties. After his speech, he posed for selfies and signed campaign posters.
“There’s huge public demand for a Brexit party. That’s what we’re here doing,” said Michael Heaver, who’s running for an EU Parliament seat in the east of England.
“You’re going to see this party really go places.”