"After the Brexit vote I was thrilled by the feeling of being on the right side of history"
I’m writing this instead of attending a special BBC post-US election breakfast briefing. Just before setting off it suddenly occurred to me: why should I listen to a panel of journalists and pundits who had up to this point got things so consistently wrong now pontificating on America under Trump? What could they possibly tell me that I would want to hear? Their wail of incomprehension, coming before work had even started, would set the tone for the day, and it would be one of seething frustration. As somebody once said, rather than bang your head against a brick wall, it’s best to just walk around it.
It’s about self-preservation, too. I’ve spent a solid year campaigning, and when it comes to the media, you learn to pick and choose. During the referendum, the BBC more or less played ball, although once the result came in, the dogs of war were well and truly unleashed. Being UKIP, you are asked questions of the “when did you stop beating your wife?” variety, each carrying the unspoken prefix “Are you seriously suggesting . . .” Doubtless presenters think they are on the side of the viewer or listener, although there’s some subtle virtue-signalling going on there too. And it’s certainly not just the BBC; Sky’s US coverage occasionally made the corporation’s look like a cool blast of sanity but the truth is that unlike the press, the whole broadcast media is run on a kind of group-think. I spent 14 years working there and it is generally assumed you are onside with the approved orthodoxies of the day.
Forget the side issue of the polling industry: if the media has any self-awareness, it must realise that it is the sector facing a major crisis.
This couldn’t have been clearer than the morning after the vote for Brexit. Having spent the night watching with Nigel Farage and the UKIP team, first at a house in Pimlico and then at Arron Banks’s party round the corner at the top of the Millbank Tower, we made our way just after 7am to the media encampment opposite Parliament. Sleepless and still not quite believing it ourselves, we were surrounded by an atmosphere of such sombreness it was as if a beloved national figure had died and we were intruding on the mourning. The only noise came from the endless stream of passing taxis, vans and cars blowing their horns and giving us the thumbs-up. At times like these, you are thrilled by the feeling of being on the right side of history.
Time and again the reaction of people to Nigel is to want to thank him personally. At a dinner some weeks after the vote, as a group of us stood outside the restaurant smoking, passing strangers spotted him, shook his hand and movingly told him how grateful they were for what he’d done for the country. Over 20 years he has become used to this, yet treats each new encounter as if it’s the first time. He has also got used to the rough stuff, of course. Some find it harder to deal with. His successor, Diane James, was spat at and abused while travelling on a train without security, an incident which contributed to her decision to stand down after only 18 days. The abuser was most probably of the kind we’re becoming used to this past year: the hard-left, nihilistic haters who mistake their authoritarianism for conviction.
Standing for London Mayor and the London Assembly, I spent the first five months of 2016 going from hustings to hustings — 20 or so, from church hall to TV studio. The greatest hostility came from middle-class white liberals. You can see a flicker of panic cross their faces if they fear they might be agreeing with you on a point — after all, their own self-images are at stake. Black and Asian audiences are much more open-minded; they might not agree with you but they don’t treat you like an incubus.
Meeting in green rooms so regularly means a relationship of sorts develops with your fellow candidates. Languid Zac Goldsmith had in spades what Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited describes as that “fatal” English charm. He gave the impression of a man who’d bitten off more than he could chew — but who hadn’t been that hungry in the first place. Sadiq Khan was, by comparison, the Duracell Bunny.
The Greens exist on their higher moral plane. For some, of course, it’s a game. George Galloway was friendly and immaculately courteous off-stage, and then became the pantomime villain when on. With his trademark hat, he has essentially become a music-hall act.
Finally: the daily toll. Cigarettes 25-30, alcohol five-six units, non-political social life minimal. And it was a wonderful year.