Nigel Farage joined lobby journalists in Parliament for lunch today. Like many of his hustings, it was a box office event, and indeed like many of those campaign trail appearances, he made plenty of the same jokes that those who follow him about have heard many times before such as the one about being married to a foreigner, and about the problem with the Westminster bubble:
‘They look the same, they sound the same, God! They’re dull! I mean, they are not much fun to be with.’
Farage, of course, is fun to be with. He was sporting a red rose for St George’s Day, and decided to regale journalists at the start of his speech by saying that his press officer tried to reassure him after his News of the World gotcha by saying that the story could have been worse: ‘He said, well, at least she said you were hung like a donkey and did it seven times! Which I have to say, isn’t true on either account.’ Later, he said he had only been once to a lap-dancing club once ‘to my knowledge’ and with a ‘former French presidential candidate’ when in Strasbourg, while endorsing a UKIP candidate who runs a lap-dancing club as a free-market entrepreneur.
He took some great pot shots at the Tories, calling David Cameron a ‘social democrat’ several times, arguing that ‘we are the true heirs to Thatcher’ on European affairs. And apparently a young Thatcher leaving university today would join UKIP, not the Conservatives. He also mused about whether Boris Johnson or Michael Gove would be a better Conservative leader, dismissing Boris as ‘the great pretender, but history shows they very rarely win’.
Yes, this was a fun lunch with one of the best raconteurs in the game. And the sketchwriters made reams of notes on Farage’s speech and his question and answer session with journalists afterwards.
But this sort of wonderful colour comes at the expense of anything really impressive on the policy front, even though he insisted that UKIP had broadened its appeal in recent years. At one stage he admitted that the party’s tax policy ‘is incomplete, it needs more work’. Everyone chuckled, and this underlined what it is that Farage sees as important to the UKIP brand. It’s not that the party supports a flat tax that many respected thinkers on the right also favour. It’s not that it has policies (or ‘aspirations’) that might appeal to other groups, such as protecting the green belt (its 2013 local manifesto cites this as the second of its ‘common-sense policies’, below ‘tax should be as low as possible). Yes these ‘aspirations’ are important for the UKIP campaign on the doorstep, along with its motherhood-and-apple pie pledge for ‘cutting council executives and managers, not front-line services’. But what Farage wants to invest in, rather than setting out detailed policies that demand scrutiny, is the anti-politics, we’re-not-like-them message that appeals to a broader section of the electorate than simply frustrated Conservative voters. Even the lap dancing club tales were aimed at projecting a refreshing anti-politics image. Did we learn much from his appearance at lunch? No. But most of us watching probably wished that characters like him turned up in the press gallery canteen more often.