It was a big night for Nigel Farage, leader of the insurgent U.K. Independence Party, so he had only half a pint of beer before he went on stage.
In a small hall in the seaside town of Ramsgate in England’s far southeast, UKIP’s local members last night selected him as their candidate for the district of Thanet South in next year’s general election. After UKIP, with its program of withdrawal from the European Union and a clampdown on immigration, topped the polls in European Parliament elections in May, Farage has his sights on a first ever House of Commons seat for the party.
Farage, 50, was theoretically only one of four candidates, and he announced himself nervous when he began speaking. Still, the event had more of the air of a rally than a job interview.
“Someone said I was David Cameron’s worst nightmare,” Farage told the audience, as he attacked both the Conservative prime minister and the leader of the opposition Labour Party. “That’s not good enough. I want to be Ed Miliband’s worst nightmare, too.”
Farage’s adoption as candidate didn’t come as a surprise. The audience hadn’t even been able to summon the effort to ask questions of the other three candidates. Not even the proposal of a Ramsgate Film Festival could move them.
“Thank you so much for coming,” the local party chairman, Martyn Heale, told one, in a tone familiar to unsuccessful job applicants everywhere. Possibly to spare their blushes, he declined to say whether any of the other candidates had received a vote.
Farage wasn’t the only celebrity politician announcing designs on a seat in Westminster yesterday. Possibly in an effort to steal some of UKIP’s thunder, London Mayor Boris Johnson, the bookies’ favorite to succeed Cameron as Conservative leader, announced he’d be seeking selection as the Tory candidate in Uxbridge, in the northwest suburbs of the capital.
Much of UKIP’s appeal centers on Farage, who offers himself as an unspun, beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking anti-politician.
“I remember seeing Nigel Farage speak here 10 years ago -- there were 16 of us,” said Martin Easton, 50, a factory worker. “Now people are realizing that UKIP are the party of the working class. The people who suffer from immigration are working-class people. It’s driving down wages.”
With at least a couple of hundred people in attendance, the event was the most exciting thing happening in Ramsgate yesterday evening -- there was even a brief fight in the hall before the meeting started. Less than 45 minutes later, the hustings was over, and voting began.
There was an impromptu auction of a fruit cake (with brandy, Heale assured potential bidders), which raised 25 pounds ($41), and then the result was announced.
Farage, addressing a crowd that was now on its feet, told them his reasons for liking the district. “I’m a mad keen sea angler,” he said. “And there’s quite a lot of pubs.”
That’s not the only appeal. With high unemployment -- nearly three times the regional average -- and an aging population, it’s open to UKIP’s message.
“It’s classic UKIP territory,” said Matthew Goodwin, co-author of “Revolt on the Right,” a study of the party. “The big risk for Farage is that he polarizes the vote, and an anti-UKIP movement organizes itself.”
A poll in November of 515 voters by Survation put UKIP on 30 percent in South Thanet, second to Labour on 35 percent and ahead of the Conservatives, who currently hold the parliamentary seat, on 28 percent.
The new candidate, who prepared for a round of media interviews after the selection meeting with a pint of beer, acknowledged the danger.
“Don’t think that the heavy artillery from the Conservative and Labour parties won’t be fired,” he warned his audience. “They will. They don’t want UKIP breaking into Parliament, and they most certainly don’t want me.”