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How Farage’s Brexit Party Is Crushing Its Opponents

WILLENHALL, England — The candidates walked down the ballroom aisle to loud ovations and corporate rock, taking turns at the lectern delivering pitches for the Brexit Party: a deep-pocketed Tory known for churning through managers at his soccer club; an ex-Labour voter and son of a coal miner whose hometown despised Margaret Thatcher; a dental surgeon who said in an interview that she believed the European Union was indoctrinating children “like Stalin’s kids and Komsomol and Hitler Youth.”

One by one they let loose with a bare-bones populism largely bereft of any demonstrable political ideology or, for that matter, any detectable policies save one — taking Britain out of the European Union promptly, and if necessary with no deal.

But by cloaking its message in the language of democracy and disgust with the political elite, the party — formed just four months ago — is threatening to become not just a vessel for discontent with Brexit, but also a more permanent pain to Britain’s two main parties, the Conservatives and the opposition Labour. Just how successful it will be is one of the towering political questions for the coming year.

Right now it is on a roll, expected to cruise to a strong first-place finish in elections to the European Parliament this week, even as smaller pro-Remain parties also pick off voters from the main parties.

As Brexit chainsaws its way through British politics, dismantling decades-old political allegiances, tearing apart the traditional parties and leaving voters confused, frustrated and angry, the Brexit Party is thriving by offering a simple and hard-edge message.

“People feel completely betrayed, they feel abandoned, they feel even hated and despised by the political class and also by the media,” said Martin Daubney, the lifelong Labour voter now standing for the Brexit Party, who used to edit a raunchy men’s magazine before reinventing himself as an anti-pornography advocate. “It feels like a grass-roots political revolution on the streets of Britain right now.”

The party’s frontman, Nigel Farage, is hoping a big win in the European elections will provide a reaffirmation of the public will to leave the European Union. But it is far more complicated than that. The European elections, typically low-turnout affairs dominated by the most ideologically motivated voters, are an imperfect barometer.

In March, moreover, hundreds of thousands of people flooded London’s streets in a rally for a people’s vote on Brexit, making a strong statement about grass-roots sentiment against leaving the European Union, and some polls have shown a tentative shift in public sentiment toward remaining in the bloc. The centrist Liberal Democrats have inched ahead of Labour in some European election polls on the back of an unapologetically anti-Brexit message. And there has never been a majority for a no-deal Brexit in Parliament.

But Mr. Farage is thinking big, vowing to run candidates, including himself, in any coming domestic general election. And the party’s success this week will surely become leverage for ardent Brexiteers already eager to replace Prime Minister Theresa May with someone who supports a no-deal Brexit.

ImageSupporters lining up ahead of a Brexit Party rally this month at Frimley Green, southwest of London.CreditAdrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Yet if politics can sometimes make odd bedfellows, the Brexit Party is taking that principle to the extreme, running candidates from all over the political spectrum. The party has even recruited as candidates three former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and its successor groups, which defended deadly bombings by the Irish Republican Army in the 1980s and 1990s.

Mr. Farage has defended his heterodox candidate slate as the seed of a nonpartisan pro-democracy movement. Analysts are dubious, however, saying he is more likely looking for ways to lure disaffected pro-Brexit Labour voters and provide a counterbalance to his history in the anti-immigration, largely right-wing 2016 Leave campaign.

“It’s rational party competition,” said Alan Wager, a research associate at the U.K. in a Changing Europe, a research institute. “It’s wearing the clothing of idealism and optimism, but it’s not an optimistic or idealistic message really.”

John Malcolm, 75, a lifelong Conservative voter sitting beside his wife, seemed to speak for many in the crowd in Willenhall when he said he did not terribly much care whom the Brexit Party would send to Brussels.

“I wasn’t looking for someone to represent me in Europe,” he said. “I’m looking for this party to do extremely well to show what we think on this issue to the other parties.”

Voters have used the European elections for protest votes before, but the Brexit Party, born in the wreckage of Mrs. May’s deal, is unusually empty of formal policies. Its candidates rarely venture beyond its signature issue and populist themes, leaning on phrases like a “clean Brexit” but mostly dodging questions about what that means — what arrangements they would make for Britain’s borders, its airlines or its financial services industry, for example.

On the stage in Willenhall last week, there was hardly even much talk about why Britain was leaving the European Union in the first place. Immigration, the fuel of the 2016 Leave campaign, largely went unmentioned, a casualty of softening voter attitudes and fears about being accused of racism.

Instead, the crowd roared at attacks on civil servants, Brussels bureaucrats, lawmakers and journalists. (The party banned Channel 4 News from its events after it broadcast an investigation into Mr. Farage’s finances.)

Mr. Daubney, the Brexit Party candidate, slammed a leader of the campaign for a second Brexit referendum for putting stock in what people said at dinner parties, instead of at the chip shops and pubs where, Mr. Daubney said, “I hang out with real people.” Mr. Farage whipped up the crowd with talk of the “treachery, duplicity of all of our political leaders” and Britain’s humiliation as a country of “lions led by donkeys.”

The party is experimenting internally with forms of direct democracy, planning what Mr. Daubney described as an online forum where supporters could weigh in on party policy. Italy’s anti-establishment Five Star Movement runs a similar platform.

ImageA rally in Peterborough. Voters have used the European elections for protest votes before, but the Brexit Party threatens to become a more permanent pain to Britain’s two main parties.CreditSimon Dawson/Reuters

Unlike Britain’s main parties, whose leaders have to answer to a vast membership and various interest groups, the Brexit Party is effectively controlled by Mr. Farage. Its secrecy has generated concerns about foreign and untraceable donations to the party’s PayPal, and the Electoral Commission, which regulates party finances, responded on Tuesday by reviewing its fund-raising systems, though it said it had “not seen evidence of electoral offenses.” Brexit Party officials have described the accusations as a “disgusting smear” and denied taking illegal foreign funds.

More concerning to some analysts is how the party is becoming a personal vehicle for Mr. Farage. “It’s new in the sense that politics is about the choice between policies and personalities, whereas Nigel Farage is obviously creating new rules,” said Mr. Wager, the research associate. “The no-policies, the way the organization is all dominated by him, is starting to look very autocratic.”

The 1,200-person crowd in Willenhall — mostly, but not entirely, conforming to polls showing the party relying on older voters — did not want to be voting in the first place, given that Britain was supposed to have left the European Union in March. But they were all too happy to unload on politicians, calling out “traitor!” and “coward!”

The heavy turnout, in a town once dominated by lock and key makers and held for decades by Labour, reflected a turn in British politics from divisions over class lines to those over values like liberalism and authoritarianism, said Paula Surridge, a senior lecturer at the University of Bristol who has studied the shift.

Mr. Daubney said Labour had started focusing too much on racism and sexism, which he said had led to policies that “tend to disfavor the bulk of the electorate, who are white people.”

The Brexit Party’s success beyond the European elections is by no means assured. The Conservative Party could well dump Mrs. May and turn to an arch-Brexiteer like Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister who was a leading Leave campaigner in the 2016 referendum, as party leader to woo back Tories who defected to Mr. Farage.

That would be a reprise of Mr. Farage’s role leading up to 2016 as leader of the U.K. Independence Party, when he startled the Conservative government into calling the Brexit referendum in the first place.

Even failing that, there is a natural tendency for voters to return to their traditional parties in general elections. On the other hand, Brexit could spell an end to such norms, staying resonant enough that the Brexit Party splits the right-wing electorate and allows the Labour Party to form a government under Jeremy Corbyn.

“The question is: Is this different because of it being about Brexit?” said Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “We don’t know the answer for certain.”

In the audience in Willenhall, some voters said they had backed Mr. Farage as leader of the U.K. Independence Party in the last European elections, then switched their votes to Mrs. May after she promised to take Britain out of Europe’s main economic institutions. But never again.

“It doesn’t matter what happens from now on, I will never ever stick a cross in the Tory box ever again,” said Andrew Kirby, 44, sitting beside his father. “There’s nothing that could happen. If the Brexit Party doesn’t come to anything, I shall never vote again.”

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