Birmingham, England

For people once described by David Cameron as “fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly” (I’ve always savored that sly “mostly”), the members of UKIP​—​the euroskeptic United Kingdom Independence Party​—​gathered in Birmingham last month for their annual conference were a bright, friendly, and refreshingly normal bunch.

They were also surprisingly upbeat. The euro​—​that Freddy Krueger of currencies​—​remains as indestructible as it is destructive, and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, is openly using the once-taboo F-word, pressing for transformation of the EU into a “federation of nation-states.” But never mind all that, the cheerfully determined folk at the conference reckoned that events were moving their way. UKIP, said its leader, the indispensable, charismatic, and hugely entertaining Nigel Farage, is “a party in a very good mood.”

Indeed it is, and why not? Nearly two decades after its founding in 1993, UKIP has come a very long way, despite bouts of internecine strife, a series of scandals, serial eccentricity, and a collection of electoral disasters that would have made even Harold Stassen pause. As Farage explained to the conference, things had been a “bit shambolic” in the past, a confession that was no revelation.

Thanks to the EU, and in more ways than one, this dismal state of affairs has been changing. The relentless intrusions of Brussels into everyday British life have sustained a market for UKIP’s ideas in a nation that was never europhile to start with. And one shocking continental innovation​—​proportional representation​—​has given UKIP a position unimaginable under Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system.

The mathematics of first-past-the-post are brutal for upstart political parties, except in areas where they can find concentrated support such as that enjoyed by nationalists in Scotland and Wales. The Liberal Democrats took 23 percent of the vote in the 2010 election, but only 57 seats in the 650-member House of Commons. UKIP fared even worse, winning 3 percent of the popular vote and taking no seats at all.

Such results feed upon themselves. The electorate shies away from casting votes that will be wasted​—​or worse. Much of UKIP’s support comes from formerly die-hard Tories, and many more of that growing tribe would follow their lead were it not for their (justifiable) fear of splitting the right-wing vote and letting the left slip in through the middle. As it is, defections to UKIP probably cost the Conservatives some 20 seats​—​and an absolute majority​—​in the 2010 election. The Tories thus ended up in a coalition government with the euromaniacal Liberal Democrats, an irony lost on few and a strong disincentive for many potential UKIP voters to slip the Tory leash. And UKIP hasn’t done much better in local elections. It has just a handful of councilors and supreme power only in the Cambridgeshire town of Ramsey (population 6,000).

Thanks to proportional representation, worries about wasted or counter-productive votes have not been such an issue in elections to the EU’s Potemkin parliament. The few concerns have been further diluted by the suspicion​—​not quite as justified as in the past​—​that the world’s only commuting legislature (as a result of some ancient compromise, it sits in both Brussels and Strasbourg) counts for very little. UKIP celebrated the election of its first three members of the European parliament in 1999. Five years later, UKIP came third with 16.1 percent of the vote and 12 MEPs. In 2009 it overtook the governing Labour party, grabbing 16.5 percent of the poll and a haul of 13 seats out of a British total of 72. UKIP’s leadership is convinced the party has a good chance of coming out on top in the 2014 EU elections.

The very nature of a European election makes it an obvious vehicle for a protest against the Brussels oligarchy. That fact, combined with a typically low turnout (in 2009 an unimpressive 34 percent of the British electorate), means that those percentages overstate UKIP’s real backing. Nevertheless the prospect of UKIP topping the euro-poll in 2014​—​and the momentum that would come with it​—​must worry David Cameron, facing a national election the following year.

UKIP already stands at some 7-10 percent in national opinion polls, something that cannot just be put down to midterm disillusion with the Tories. There is a wide and growing disconnect between the pedantically centrist, tiresomely PC prime minister and a good number of his party’s natural supporters. Many of these are euroskeptic, and so this breach is only worsened by Cameron’s refusal to respond with anything other than curiously arrogant disdain to mounting British disgust with an EU that displays an ambition only exceeded​—​thanks to the flailing euro​—​by its troubles. One recent poll showed almost half of all Britons wanted out of the EU, while only under a third preferred to stay in. Making matters worse still for Cameron, however unfairly, is the U.K.’s failure to emerge from the economic mess his government inherited. Put all these circumstances together and UKIP’s allure is not hard to understand. Nor is the fact that the party’s appeal is reinforced by its plague-on-all-your-houses outsider status.

And that’s no act: The Birmingham conference was a long way in thinking and in feel from Britain’s political establishment. From the endearingly self-deprecatory remarks that accompanied so many speeches, to the occasional organizational glitches, to the misfiring microphone at the conference’s Friday night “gala dinner” (tickets cost all of $55), this was a gathering that featured little of the bombast and none the slickness of the larger parties’ shindigs. The auction that accompanied the gala included some cheaper items​—​tea bags in a fancy box, a woven silk portrait of the queen, and a painting that would have been unforgivable even had the artist been blind​—​that only underlined the distance between UKIP’s grassroots essence and the political establishment some UKIP members refer to as the Lib-Lab-Con.

At a desk near the entrance to the conference, some volunteers​—​including Mrs. Farage (a German, as it happens)​—​could be spotted selling Ukitsch: umbrellas, pens, mugs (“The EU is NOT my cup of tea”), tote bags (“The EU is NOT my bag”). Then there was the moment when Mr. Farage​—​no velvet ropes here​—​started hawking “Belgian damp rags” to a delighted crowd at five pounds each. (Full disclosure: I bought two.)

Autographed by Farage, these, uh, striking kitchen towels are decorated with the dispiriting features of Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the EU’s European Council. They are an allusion to the one event, more than any other, that made Farage the YouTube star that he is today, a status he cemented with a series of speeches that did much to ensure his recognition by Der Spiegel as the “seventh most dangerous politician” in Europe, no small honor. In 2010 Farage, an MEP since 1999, greeted Van Rompuy​—​world famous in Belgium, if nowhere else​—​to the European parliament shortly after the former Belgian prime minister had been appointed the quasi-head of the EU’s quasi-state. After asking who Van Rompuy was, and how he had been picked for this job, Farage compared the new potentate’s charisma to that of a “damp rag” and his appearance to that of “a low-grade bank clerk” (Farage apologized later to bank clerks). It was a virtuoso, deftly theatrical performance, but, as so often with Farage, there was a knife concealed within the knockabout. After the laughs there was this, delivered more quietly:

I sense though that you are competent and capable and dangerous and I have no doubt that it is your intention to be the quiet assassin of European democracy and of the European nation-states.

This display of unruly parliamentary vigor was too much for the EU’s mausoleum of democracy. Farage was fined $4,400 for his lèse-Rompuy, not a bad price for the publicity it brought.

Farage, 48, a smoker (despite a bout of cancer in his 20s) who enjoys a drink or two, is well aware of his naughty, none-of-the-above appeal. The Belgian damp rags were also decorated with a small, impish photograph of UKIP’s leader roaring with bad-boy laughter. UKIP’s antiestablishment message was a familiar refrain from the conference floor. The term “political class” was a frequent punch line, repeated with more resignation than anger, the exasperated lament of passengers who have found themselves on a peculiarly poorly run vessel but are still debating how violent the mutiny should be.

One thing that does seem certain, however, is that the Conservative party is in danger of being shoved over the side. It’s not just the EU, or the economy, or the drift to a witless center, although it is all those things. There’s something else. UKIP’s activists are a smart lot, and they understand but do not appreciate the contempt in which they have for too long been held by Cameron’s metropolitan clique. There’s recently been talk of some sort of UKIP-Conservative nonaggression pact for the 2015 general election. In his keynote speech, Farage appeared to leave a door slightly ajar “to consider it,” but only in exchange for a promise “written in blood” of an in/out referendum on the EU. A later speaker wanted something else: an apology. The applause that followed ought to be a reminder to Cameron to be careful in the future about whom he chooses to demonize.

As always in Britain, resentment comes wrapped in the country’s class sensitivities. The accents at the conference were provincial. Toffs were scarce on the ground. As I listened to the talk, time went into reverse, to Conservative constituency meetings of 30 years ago. These were Thatcher’s people; many of them had come of age under the Iron Lady’s reign. They were no-nonsense, often self-employed, and not the sort invited to the dinner parties that had dreamt up the rainbow coalition of politically correct gestures that, in the end, failed to carry Cameron to clear victory in 2010 against one of the most incompetent governments in British history.

To date the border between UKIP and the Conservative party has been ill-defined and rarely policed. That may be changing. If UKIP is to anchor itself at home as well as in the European parliament​—​essential if it is to increase its clout​—​it cannot just be about Brussels (the conference’s slogan was “Beyond the EU”). That will mean staking out a position more clearly distinct from the Tories than hitherto. Farage (who quit the Conservative party in 1992 over the EU’s Maastricht Treaty) has been successful in excluding racists and the jackbooted from his party, and describes himself as libertarian. But it is easy to see that the search for votes​—​particularly from what Farage terms “patriotic old Labour”​—​may be easing the party in the direction of the harder-edged, bigger-spending populism of euroskeptic parties on the continent, such as the Finns party (also known as the True Finns) and the Danish People’s party.

That could cause trouble in time, but for now Brussels remains the bogeyman around which UKIP can rally, a piñata for all, bashed in Birmingham by Farage in top form, clever, incisive, and witty. Later, “with greetings from the eurozone,” came Timo Soini (Der Spiegel’s“fifth most dangerous”), the leader of the Finns party and the politician responsible for forcing the previously supine Helsinki establishment to do something to protect its -taxpayers from the ravages of a dysfunctional monetary union. Soini was hammer to Farage’s saber, but he was amusing and touching, too​—​proud of his countrybut also of de Gaulle’s grand vision of a Europe des Patries. If this conference was a celebration of xenophobia it was taking a very strange form.The single currency itself was, of course, singled out for rough treatment and rougher prophecies, not least from the distinguished City of London economist (and former Treasury adviser), UKIP cobelligerent Roger Bootle: “When did things go wrong with the euro? Right at the beginning.”

That was the fun stuff. It’s when discussing the next stage in this saga that the usually ebullient Farage began to look a little anxious. He has long been skeptical, for good reason, about the terms of any referendum that Cameron might offer the British electorate. His new concern is that Barroso’s attempt to push for federation will provide an extremely convenient escape hatch for Cameron, by providing him the opportunity to offer the British to vote on joining a closer union or remaining “as is.” The problem with that choice is that, unless the position of those EU member states who choose to remain outside the deeper union is fundamentally renegotiated, “as is” is not good enough. It might seem attractive to a country easily bored by the technical complexity of the EU debate, but Britain would remain subject, in practice, to the heavy burden of EU regulation, not to mention the exorbitant costs, direct and indirect, of membership. In short, it would be a very limited victory. The electorate’s fear of the unknown will make an in/out referendum a risky proposition for UKIP and its sympathizers, whatever the current opinion polls may predict, but for now it remains the last best hope.

Making matters worse is the gradual approach of 2015 and the likely election of a europhile Labour government and, with it, the closing of the exit door, quite possibly, forever.

And writing those words makes me think of a scene in the final Lord of the Rings film. As Gimli, the martial dwarf, contemplates the perils ahead, he turns to his companions, and remarks, “Certain death. Small chance of success. What are we waiting for?” Gimli, I feel, would have been a member of UKIP.

Andrew Stuttaford works in the international financial markets and writes frequently about cultural and political issues.

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