28 Feb 2014

Ukip conference: Farage , Torquay and Fawlty Towers

Torquay, with its many palm trees, is the most continental of English resorts. Yet this weekend it hosts the most uncontinental of British political parties.

And the Gleneagles Hotel in Torquay, which inspired one of the greatest TV comedies of all time – Fawlty Towers.

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The hotel offers regular Fawlty Towers weekend, complete with lookalike actors, and meals in its Basil restaurant.

Ukip has been trying hard to ensure their spring conference on Friday and Saturday doesn’t degenerate into another Fawlty Towers weekend.

That’s pretty much what happened with their last conference in London in September which degenerated into farce, thanks largely to the activities of the Ukip MEP Godfrey Bloom.

He ended up hitting me over the head with a conference brochure, having also joked about some women in Ukip being “sluts”.

Read more: Ukip is the big by-election issue between now and May 2015

But Ukip’s efforts to cut down on the cranky behaviour, and exclude what David Cameron called “fruitcakes”, wasn’t entirely successful, as my colleague Tim Bouverie describes in his accompanying blog.

The Ukip leader Nigel Farage spoke in his big speech once more of creating an “earthquake” in May’s European elections, and coming ahead of the three main parties in the Euro poll – something which election experts think is quite likely.

And Mr Farage also spoke of winning a “good number of seats” in the general election for Westminster in May 2015, without specifying what “a good number” means. Would he regard winning no seats as failure? he was asked. “Yes”, he replied.

So would he resign if that happened? I asked. “Good lord, yes,” Mr Farage shot back. “I’ll be out of that door before you can say Jack Robinson.” Though the grin on his face suggested that may not be a pledge we should regard as rock-solid.

In his big speech Mr Farage made it clear that immigration will be a bigger issue than ever in the May campaign.

Read more: Too many elephants? On the Ukip EU campaign trail

Ukip is bolstered by Thursday’s government figures showing that net immigration to the UK rose by 40 per cent in the 12 months to September – from a net figure to 154,000 to 212,000.

And the tone of Mr Farage’s language about immigration was stronger than I’ve heard from any senior politician in many years.

He said: “The fact that in scores of our cities and market towns, this country in a short space of time has frankly become unrecognisable.

“Whether it the impact in local schools and hospitals, whether it’s the fact that in many parts of England you don’t hear English spoken any more, this is not the kind of community we want to leave to our children and grandchildren.”

Read more: Thwack! MEP’s blunders derail Ukip party conference

Later, at a press conference Mr Farage described how he’d been on an evening stopping train from Charing Cross down to his home in Kent, and how it wasn’t until the train got to the outer suburbs that he heard an English voice for the first time.

Such comments may win Ukip support from many voters who are deeply concerned about immigration.

On the other hand he risks alienating more middle-of-the-road, liberal voters who share Ukip’s concerns about the EU, but may feel Mr Farage is being xenophobic or even racist.

Mr Farage’s argument, of course, is that the issues of Europe and immigration are inextricably linked, since most of the increased numbers of immigrants are from the European Union.

And Britain is pretty much powerless to do much about that influx so long as we belong to the EU.

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