An orderly queue formed last night outside Methodist Central Hall for the Leave Means Leave rally. As we entered we were handed small Union Jacks to wave during speeches by Kate Hoey, Rocco Forte, Iain Duncan Smith, Tim Martin, Nigel Farage and Esther McVey.
The Labour people who gave out Union Jacks to the crowd which applauded Tony Blair’s entry into Downing Street in 1997 were onto something. Here is a delightful way to demonstrate patriotism.
But last night’s crowd, about 2,000 strong, rather than celebrating victory, were anxiously hoping to avert defeat.
The mood of these Brexit supporters has not yet turned angry. It is one of bewildered patriotism. For although they won the referendum, they now question whether they can trust the very politicians to whom they decided to return power.
As the man sitting next to me put it:
“I just don’t think it’s right that we have to concede a second referendum. People had a choice. They voted as they did. I think it’s right for the country to leave the EU, personally.”
He is 45 years old, has a job in insurance, and had never attended such a rally before. His tone was modest, almost apologetic, yet conveyed a sense of incredulity at the outrageous injustice which may be about to be perpetrated.
All six speakers wrestled with the paradox of a Parliament most of whose members yearn to avert Brexit, even though it gives more power to Parliament. Hoey, a Labour MP since 1989, warned that “the great betrayal has begun” and is now “moving apace”.
Richard Tice, the clean-cut Englishman, somehow reminiscent of an American evangelist, who runs Leave Means Leave and introduced the speakers, insisted “we can begin to smell” the betrayal. He urged people to chant “Let’s go WTO”.
Forte, who spoke as a businessman, said “I have not known such defeatism…by the ruling class…since the Seventies” [applause]. He described the elite’s lack of belief in the British people as “almost treasonable”.
A heckler interrupted at this point by shouting very loudly. He was quite near to me, but I could not make out what he was saying. Forte, being somewhat inexperienced as a public speaker, fell silent, and members of the crowd started shouting “Out, out, out”.
Tice poured oil on troubled waters by saying, “We respect the right of free speech and we urge them to do the same”, for apparently there was more than one protester. The heckler near to me was ushered from the hall and someone shouted after him “At least you can leave”, which produced rueful laughter.
Duncan Smith started with some jokes, including the funny story he told when interviewed by ConservativeHome in 2013, and went on to talk of “this enormous Establishment plot” to tell us “we are a miserable little nation” and “a hopeless little island”.
He added that Parliament “doesn’t represent the British people any more”. But he and the minority of MPs who think like him “will not rest” until Britain is “fully free once again”.
Tim Martin, founder and Chairman of the Wetherspoon pub chain, bore as he came on stage a fleeting but disconcerting resemblance to the satirist Craig Brown.
Martin’s main message was “don’t believe Project Fear”. He recalled that car manufacturers said “they’d all f*ck off to the continent” if Britain didn’t join the euro.
And he reported that “if you really want to annoy people”, you should “try going into a pub in Sunderland” and asking people there if it was true they “didn’t understand” what they were voting for in the referendum.
This produced laughter of the usual good-natured yet rueful kind.
Farage received the most enthusiastic welcome of anyone: a standing ovation before he had said a word.
He walked to and fro across the front of the stage, his amplified voice painfully loud as he warned that “we tonight here in Westminster are in the heart of enemy territory”, for “our political class” never respected the referendum result “from day one”.
Theresa May’s deal with the EU “looked more like a surrender document” [applause], and was the culmination of “50 years of lies from the British Establishment”.
He fears the whole referendum battle will have to be fought all over again, urged everyone to prepare for it, and concluded: “Next time, as far as I’m concerned, it’s no more Mr Nice Guy.”
One could not help suspecting that as in the first referendum campaign, Farage being nasty could have an off-putting effect on those voters who do not already agree with him.
McVey delivered an apologia for her time in government: “We thought we could trust our MPs.” On realising last November that the Prime Minister’s deal failed to honour the referendum result, she resigned.
And that was that. The event lasted two hours, felt decorous and respectable, and can be watched on Youtube. The audience was almost entirely white, but mixed by age and sex. It wanted to feel reassured that Brexit is going to turn out fine, but none of the six speakers could set at rest the fear that Parliament is about to refuse to do what the people have voted for.
The drawback of upholding an old-fashioned belief in parliamentary sovereignty turns out to be that a majority of MPs would much rather we had remained in the EU.