Interviews with Ukip bigwigs used to happen in pubs. But times are changing. When I meet Patrick O’Flynn — the party’s economics spokesman, and until recently chief spin doctor — it’s in a juice bar.
O’Flynn, a former political editor of the Daily Express who studied economics at Cambridge, is one of those driving Ukip towards professionalism. Ukip, he says, is the only party he’s ever joined, and it is ‘not part of the Conservative family’. That is why he rates its chances in northern Labour seats: ‘We didn’t close down any coal mines or steelworks and we’re not known as the patrician Home Counties rich people’s party.’ He claims, rather extravagantly, that voting Tory north of Birmingham is likely to save a Labour MP: ‘If the Tories really want to stop a Labour government, then perhaps, unilaterally, they should stand aside in those seats.’
O’Flynn is nothing if not a Farage loyalist. He refers to the leader as ‘our genius’ and is insistent that he is still calling the shots even though the party now has an MP, Douglas Carswell. When I put it to him that Carswell’s votes in the Commons must now define Ukip policy, he replies that this would involve ‘according Douglas total power to set Ukip policy on everything, which clearly isn’t the way it is going to work’.
No other party claims that Westminster votes don’t reflect its official policy positions — not even the Greens, who like Ukip only have one MP and a leader outside the Commons. But O’Flynn is adamant that Ukip is different. ‘Well the Greens don’t have a leader like Nigel Farage, do they? We have an incredibly strong leader who is undoubtedly the most important reason for our success and has connected with a huge slice of the electorate.’
‘He’s a strong leader with strong views,’ O’Flynn continues, and he’s ‘going to remain the dominant figure in setting the direction of the party, I’ve no doubt about that.’ In other words, Carswell ought to remember that Ukip only has room for one leading man.
But O’Flynn isn’t entirely uncritical of how his party handles itself. He concedes that Ukip’s new alliance in the European Parliament — with a Polish MEP who once discussed the circumstances in which it was permissible to beat your wife — is far from ideal. If the deal wasn’t needed to preserve Ukip’s group privileges in the European Parliament, he says, he ‘would rather not’ have done it. And unlike Farage, he does not attempt to defend the Ukip calypso, in which the DJ Mike Read sang the party’s praises in a mock Jamaican accent: ‘Ultimately what you have here is a white guy singing a song which included a reference to illegal immigration in a Jamaican accent.’ His explanation for how that mistake got through? ‘It would now almost never occur to someone in Ukip that we would be perceived as racist, because we very obviously are not.’
Indeed Ukip, according to O’Flynn, is ‘the one party with a non-racist immigration policy’, because it wants to treat people from all countries equally. He complains that the current system means that ‘potentially high-value people from India or New Zealand can’t come in and yet someone with frankly nothing to contribute who comes from one of the EU countries can’. So Ukip’s ambition for the next election is ‘to be the party that can give immigration a good name again’.
The rise in the tax-free allowance, he says, has changed the ‘cost-benefit analysis’ of bringing in low-paid immigrant labour. ‘They will be paying zero income tax and maybe paying £500 or £600 National Insurance. But there is in-work benefits, there is housing benefit, if they have children there is child benefit, a school place on top of which the pupil premium is another £500. This is great for Starbucks’ costs and profits. But it’s terrible for the public realm.’
O’Flynn seems deeply suspicious of big corporations. He says that with companies having turnovers equivalent to the GDP of developing countries, the government should be ‘asking the question about whether the private players are playing in the national interest’. He wants a national-interest test for foreign takeovers of UK companies. It’s a far cry from the free-trading libertarianism that used to characterise Ukip.
The people that O’Flynn wants to stand up for are the striving classes. He accuses ‘Conservative trust fund kids’ of not understanding them, saying he was pushed into politics not by Europe or immigration but by George Osborne’s decision to take child benefit away from higher-rate taxpayers. It’s because of their own circumstances, he says, that the Prime Minister and Chancellor ‘bought into this idea that anyone earning £40,000 a year spent their child benefit on cappuccinos’. O’Flynn is adamant that Cameron and Osborne don’t understand how much money people need to get by these days. In the south-east, ‘If you have no inheritance or family wealth behind you and you are trying to get on the property ladder and you have a couple of children and just one person in the family working, then even £60,000 might not get you very far.’
Even a few months ago, asking what Ukip would do in the event of a hung parliament would have seemed like fantasy politics. But with the party now on course to win a handful of seats, it seems negligent not to. O’Flynn’s response is that it would go down the route of ‘confidence and supply’, not full coalition, and ‘demand an early in/out referendum’.
Strikingly, O’Flynn is insistent that, for now, the general election is more important for Ukip than an EU referendum. In the hunt for Westminster seats, it aims to create a ‘set of political ideas’ that commands the loyalty of 20 per cent of the electorate, with ‘concentrated clusters of support’. But then, ‘If you create for a referendum a brand that only commands 20 per cent support, you’re in a lot of trouble. So it’s a completely different challenge when we get to an in/out referendum.’
When I ask O’Flynn if he would stand for leader after Farage goes, he downplays the idea: ‘I would only stand if people convinced me that I was the person who could best take things on.’ This just goes to show that he’s already learnt how to give the perfect politician’s answer.