HIS publicity describes him as Britain’s most charismatic, plainspeaking politician. And Ukip leader Nigel Farage unquestionably carries a larger-than-life persona.
Standing outside Newcastle’s grandiose Assembly Rooms in a brown overcoat sucking heavily on a cigarette, he might have just stepped out of Orson Welles’ The Third Man, rather than off the northbound train at Newcastle Central.
During our interview, he constantly throws his arms in the air, repeatedly lambasts the “metropolitan, London-based political elite”, often bursts into raucous laughter and even – just occasionally – swears.
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Ukip was “bloody close” to returning its first North-East Member of the European Parliament (MEP) at the last Euro elections in 2009, he says, having won about 90,000 votes – 15,000 short of what was needed.
“I was over the moon to lead the party to coming second across the entire UK. It was a hell of an achievement.
“But if there was one little disappointment on the night it was that we didn’t quite get over the line in the North-East.”
But, he continues, at the next vote, in 2014: “We absolutely intend to win a seat, and we damn well will.”
It’s a bold statement. The North-East is England’s only region without a Ukip MEP. Nevertheless, many believed 2009 would be the party’s high water mark, with protest voters in future turning elsewhere to voice their discontent.
In contrast, an opinion poll last week put Ukip on ten per cent – ahead of the Liberal Democrats.
“People don’t vote Ukip just to protest,” Mr Farage insists.
“They did back in the 1990s, when we were first formed. [Now] they vote Ukip because they believe in the positive solutions we are offering.”
It is easy to say, less easy to prove. The party’s logo is still a pound sign – a reminder of a past battle to keep Britain out of the Euro.
“The pound’s been very good for us,” Mr Farage says, apparently used to fielding the question.
“(But) When we can find something... that’s a symbol of where we need to go... we’ll go with that.”
But Ukip is still relevant, he says, and offers to take me for a walk along the high street to meet shopkeepers and small business owners.
They would talk about employment regulations dreamt up in Brussels, he predicts.
“And health and safety! Oh, health and safety,”
he bellows, really finding his soapbox now.
The Farages recently had their house repainted for the first time in nine years.
“Nine years ago, two blokes with a ladder turned up. Now, thanks to health and safety, there’s scaffolding all round the place.”
So, Ukip’s argument goes, it is time Britain left the EU.
“Whatever you think of the EU, the whole thing is fundamentally changing,” he says.
“There is radical change going on in the Eurozone with a move towards banking union, fiscal union and political union.
“Some people even talk of countries being made to sign agreements over their budgets before elections.
“That leaves us in a very difficult position.
Every single summit meeting, Britain is in an impossible position, because what’s being proposed could not be supported by any of the three party leaders.”
IF we continue in the EU, he says, we will become a “Cinderella state”, adding: “We will have to do all the skivvying, but we will not be invited to the meetings at the top table, where fundamental decisions will be taken.
“Our position is we want to engage constructively with Europe... but we do not want to be part of this political union, which is costing us a fortune and leaving our Government impotent.
“There’s now a clear, settled majority in this country, something like two-thirds of Britons, who want a relationship based on trade, not politics.”
But what about in the North-East? Longstanding Labour ties still hold strong in many communities.
“There’s an obsession in the London-based media,” Mr Farage says, “That these [Ukip voters] are all retired lieutenant colonels living in Wiltshire.
“There are a lot of lieutenant colonels living in Wiltshire who have had enough of Cameron and the Tory party. But our potential with old Labour is every bit as strong, if not stronger.”
“Why?”, I ask.
Two reasons, he replies. “Firstly, that’s where your patriotic Brits are. They’re the most patriotic people in this country.
“They instinctively believe and feel they are part of this. They are not getting that from Labour – and they have not had it from Labour for a very, very long time.
“Secondly, immigration has impacted on their lives more than anybody else. For rich people, it has been fantastic. If you live in a £2m house in Berkshire, this has been brilliant. Domestic staff are back because they are so cheap. But for working communities, the effects of the open door has been absolutely devastating.”
Allowing unlimited immigration from new EU member states in eastern Europe was one of the biggest acts of irresponsible stupidity, he says.
If he is so confident the North-East is desperate to vote Ukip, what are his targets for the years ahead? Well, first, Ukip will field candidates in next month’s Police and Crime Commissioner elections in Durham and Northumbria, although not Cleveland.
Then, it will contest the Middlesbrough byelection.
Next year, it is Durham County Council elections.
Does Mr Farage expect Ukip to win a seat? “I’m not going to make any stupid predictions,”
“I’d be disappointed if we didn’t get a damn good average score and if we weren’t fielding candidates in the vast majority of those seats.”
And beyond that? Into 2015’s General Election?
“The pace of change over the past two years has been so great, it is difficult for me to see exactly where we are going to be in 2015.
“But if the Conservative and Labour leaderships decide they will ignore Ukip’s messages, then goodness knows what we can do.”