Rachel Johnson meets Ukip’s pin-up boy and finds to her horror that she likes him
In order to interview Robert Kilroy-Silk, the orthodontically perfect public face of Ukip, it is first necessary to talk to his people. But his people, it turns out, are his wife Jan. ‘So,’ Jan growls in what the BBC calls a lovely regional accent (though I am not good on accents, I know the Kilroy clan hails from Birmingham, where his grandfather was a roadsweeper, and his grandmother cleaned pub floors). ‘You want to write one of those fluffy articles, do you, about his orange face?’
I am already beginning to be a little scared of Jan, who is, I am told by several people — including Kilroy himself — ‘the brains behind the throne’. But I tell Jan honestly that I do not know what sort of article I shall write, because I haven’t spoken to my people yet, nor have I met her husband.
When I do, it is clear that what my editors want — and I should remind you that Kilroy’s lot are making life even more desperate for the Conservatives in the marginals, in the suburbs and, yes, even in true blue strongholds by offering a clear anti-European choice — is an unbiased report. ‘I want you to rip out his Aztec gizzard,’ instructs the editor of this, the Tory house mag. ‘I want you to show that he is an absurd person, grandiose in his ambitions, who has only managed to sew up the Poujadist vote,’ commands his deputy.
‘He’ll probably come over as plausible,’ reports the political editor, on his mobile from Bournemouth, where Ukip is not mentioned even once during the first day’s proceedings, as if the Ukippers were publicity-grubbing terrorists rather than the party which pushed the Tories to a humiliating fourth place in the Hartlepool by-election last week, and have decided to fight every seat next May.
‘But he’s a mad proto-fascist, and his MEPs are dodgy and...’. At this point his mobile cut out, so I rang back. ‘Some of them are crooks ...Mussolini something ...crackle crackle.’ ‘Thanks Peter,’ I say, and ring off.
On the way down to Kilroy Towers in Bucks, I review what I know of his story to date. Served as Labour MP for Ormskirk for 12 years, then resigned his seat. For 17 years presented Kilroy for BBC daytime, from which he was sacked summarily for making remarks about the customs and practices of Muslim fundamentalists in his newspaper column. (A subeditor decided that ‘Arabs’ made a crisper headline, with predictable results.) Refused to apologise on the grounds he was ‘not racist, and told the truth’. Stormed to success in Euro-elections in June on his single-issue platform of taking Britain out of Europe (though has strong views on immigration too). Electrified last week’s Ukip conference with the following two sentences: ‘The Conservative party is dying, why would you want to give it the kiss of life? What we want to do is kill and replace it.’ This language, and the decision to field candidates who could damage the prospects of Eurosceptic Tory MPs, directly led to Ukip’s loss this week of its biggest backer, Paul Sykes, which was the best news the Tories have had since ...well, since Sandra Howard. (‘You can’t let the person with the biggest chequebook determine the policy of the party,’ he tells me unrepentantly the next day, on the telephone. ‘It’s all very amicable. We’re all having lunch with our wives in London today.’)
As I drive along the A40 in autumn sunshine, the copper beeches on the turn, I burnish my mental image of a tall man with silvered hair, a bronzed complexion, gazing into camera with unbreakable confidence and unblinking turquoise eyes. I also imagine the steely Jan, who has equipped me with idiot-proof directions. ‘When you get to some gateposts with stone balls,’ she tells me, ‘we’ll let you in. If you get to the White Lion pub, you’ve gone too far.’ And I naturally visualise his house, which is bound to be some Beckingham-Palace-type spread with a paved drive and Velux windows. As I drive past driveways to ‘The Sheiling’ and ‘Heron’s Nest’, I sense my suspicions are confirmed.
I stop in the village to buy some batteries, and I vox-pop the shop assistants in the chemists. My subject was once called the housewife’s choice — so what did housewives think of him now? There are five women working in there, and all have an opinion. ‘A bit smarmy, not my cup of tea,’ says Annie, behind the counter. ‘Like all politicians, he tells you what he thinks you want to hear,’ says Bel. ‘He opened the church fete, I’ve got a photo of us together,’ says a sixtysomething proudly, stacking shelves. The young Colleen tells me to say hello to him and that she loved his chat show. ‘I stood behind his wife in the butcher’s once,’ says the last, whose name I do not catch, making a face. ‘I bet he has to toe the line.’
I get back into the car for the final leg. I pray hard. ‘Please, let me not find him attractive. Please God, let him be a total plonker. Otherwise how can I write the piece?’
Having done a predictable U-turn at the White Lion, I arrive at the stone balls and press a buzzer. Iron gates creak open. I drive up a tree-lined avenue. And I drive. After a while I let out my dog, Coco, for exercise. I spy a deer park. I spy a walled garden. I spy an aviary. Finally I park outside a magnificent bow-fronted stucco pile, and let out a whistle.
Two black Labradors lollop towards us and sniff Coco’s hindquarters, which is the perfect ice-breaker. RK-S comes out in a Ralph Lauren checked shirt and dark trousers, looking rather waxen compared with my Ronsealed mental picture of him. Jan, who is so far not frightening at all, brings chewy treats for all three dogs. So we spend the first few minutes talking about our dogs, as one does, then he tells me about the house.
‘It’s Grade 2*, with a Jacobean courtyard and Victorian fa