‘Some wine? How about a beer? Shall we settle into a good old pub?’ I make these suggestions to Ukip’s interim leader, Steve Crowther, as we meet in central London, but he opts for a quiet bistro where he orders a cup of tea. He has a dapper suit, a ruddy, forceful face and a white beard of neatly trimmed bristles. His rat-a-tat laugh resounds across the bar like a well-oiled machine gun. Our intended subject is the Ukip leadership election (hustings this month, results on 30 September), but the n-word elbows its way through and claims our attention. The negotiations.
Crowther declines to criticise David Davis and his team, and he’s determined not to be ‘snotty’ or ‘churlish’ about it: ‘The 23-year struggle succeeded, and the mandate was passed to a new government to implement. Fine.’ He claims to be ‘encouraged by the blood-curdling threats issuing from Brussels about not negotiating for two months unless we agree to something. Every time they do that they reveal their own weakness.’ I ask why we should negotiate at all. Article 50 is a legal instrument signed by a political cartel whose authority we are repudiating so we can just burn the Lisbon Treaty and say bye-bye. ‘This is our official position,’ he says. ‘Cut the crap. Repeal the 1972 Act. Then they can come and talk to us.’
He is politely scathing about the divorce bill. ‘It’s not a bill. We haven’t bought anything.’ He talks of a gratuity or ‘sweetener’ which should be offered (not paid, necessarily) ‘only if there’s a damn good reason.’ How much? ‘I would like to put a figure on it of not one penny.’
He’s unconcerned that the ‘transition period’ is already expanding to the point where it may overlap with the next election. He believes ‘the transition’ is a sophistry designed to conceal the government’s failure ‘to get a border control system in in time’. Will Brexit happen? ‘Yes.’ With Britain outside the single market and the customs union? ‘Yes’ — otherwise it would ‘defeat the whole object’. The referendum was a ‘genuine force of nature’, he says, which left him ‘beautifully stunned’. And Hillary’s failure in November re-affirmed that ‘the majority are no longer prepared to be run in the way they can be run by the elite’. Was he ‘beautifully stunned’ by Trump’s victory? ‘Stunned — but not beautifully,’ he says. He claims not to be a Trump supporter.
And so to Ukip. ‘I’m actually genuinely confident that this election will produce the next longterm leader who will pick us up and take us forward,’ he says. But what of the Ukip death spiral? He talks of ‘cycles’ in politics and a need for ‘new energy’. He has faith in Ukip’s ability to ‘amplify views within the voting public that are not being expressed by the other parties —because they’re afraid of them’. He has a list. ‘Democratic reform, small government, nation-building, creating a more cohesive, integrated society, and a sense of pride in one of the greatest nations that has existed.’ I suggest that this sounds like a mission statement for a pageant or a festival. ‘Does it? I’m not talking about morris dancing.’ But how might it work in manifesto terms? ‘Ah, well — I’m not going to pre-empt the new leader by creating policy.’
He admits Ukip has to be more than a Nigel Farage fan club. ‘He’s a great man. And he used his talent, his passion and his personal appeal, and battled away for years and years, and he got us to where we got. And we now have to do it again.’ I ask if ‘the great man’ drinks as much as he claims. And I offer my theory that Farage, following Churchill’s lead, deliberately exaggerates his intake in order to demoralise his enemies. A burst of rat-a-tat laughter from Crowther. ‘Nigel enjoys a drink,’ he says. ‘He also likes a decent wine.’ Farage’s omission from the honours list provokes a burst of lemony disgust. ‘An absolute outrage … The hypocrisy is breathtaking … Sheer nerve to ignore Ukip completely.’ Cameron resigned, says Crowther, and promptly crammed the Lords with ‘cronies… who happened to pass his door every day and were paid handsomely for doing so’. He believes the snub was deliberate. ‘Very pointed. They are furious.’
He predicts that the present government will ‘play it long and not scare the horses’, while waiting for Labour to ‘tear itself apart’ again. He refers to ‘the Mayhem election’ as a calamity that ‘let Corbyn out on to the streets where he’s comfortable’. And we’re on to Corbyn, the secret Brexiteer. I refer to a recent BBC interview in which Diane Abbott was asked if her leader voted to quit the EU. Rather than dismissing the idea, she attacked the questioner and left the impression that Corbyn had indeed put his X in the Leave box. Crowther agrees. ‘I’d be astonished if he didn’t, and to a certain extent it’s a compliment to Corbyn. I would be most disappointed if a man who has stood on his principles for 30 years didn’t, in the silence of the ballot box, then vote with his principles. It’s clear he wants out of the EU for Bennite reasons.’
Crowther is 60 this year and he achieved his majority in 1975. So how did he vote in the first referendum? ‘I don’t believe I did,’ he says. ‘I’ve tried to remember. But I don’t believe I did.’ His conversion to Euroscepticism occurred, rather unusually, in 1978 when Greece’s accession was being discussed. ‘I suddenly had a blinding flash of clarity. “Hang on. That means ultimately we will become as poor as the Greeks.” It’s about the transfer of wealth, and the Greeks obviously were quite poor back then, a small Mediterranean country… Greece would change the dynamic. And I realised I didn’t like this thing.’
At the time he was a 21-year-old student union leader in Bristol. ‘An odd rightist in a very leftist student union.’ All around him were political dreamers, ‘communists, anarcho-syndicalists, Enver Hoxha-ists. I wondered where they all went.’ Now he knows: ‘They joined the establishment.’
He’s frustrated that leftie groupthink has corrupted so many of our institutions, especially the school system. ‘Teachers call us [Ukip] terrorists and Nazis.’ Crowther believes our political culture should be recalibrated to emphasise Britain’s strength and its openness to newcomers willing to contribute. ‘But instead of saying, “We’re great, come and help us be great”, we say, “We’re rubbish, come and show us how to be good.”’ With that, he strolls off to the Oval to watch England thump South Africa.