UK Politics

On the campaign trail with the UKIP's Nigel Farage

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Media captionNigel Farage is unhappy that Panorama has been talking to former UKIP members - what he calls the "dregs of rejects".

Over the course of six months, Panorama followed UKIP leader Nigel Farage on the campaign trail, asking whether his party really offers a different choice for voters.

It is my first close encounter with Nigel Farage. Days ahead of the European elections in May, UKIP is hosting a last public rally in Eastleigh.

First, the warm-up speeches which are politely received by the audience of several hundred supporters. Then the main event, the star attraction, Nigel Farage, strides on to the stage to cheers and rapturous applause. We have lift off.

Mr Farage owns the stage this night. Wearing a headset microphone and speaking without notes, he works the audience as slickly as a comedian at the Apollo.

And he gets as many laughs, it is truly impressive. And when he finishes and leaves the stage, the crowd roars its approval - a standing ovation. This moment demands an encore - and so Nigel returns to the stage to make his bows. Heady stuff.

The day hadn't started quite so well. UKIP had planned to drive some candidates around the town on an open-topped bus. Half a dozen phone calls had secured us a place on board. We had sensed some reluctance from UKIP head office to engage with Panorama, so we were delighted when the bus set off with one of the candidates on board.

We thought the others would be joining us later. But the bus had hardly moved a few hundred yards when the only candidate on board alighted. And so I sit there, alone on the top deck of the UKIP campaign bus, being presented to the people of Eastleigh on a circuit of the town.

Image caption Romford businessman Alby Tebbutt received a personal invitation from Nigel Farage to join UKIP

Our next stop is Romford, where we meet Alby Tebbutt. He's a former Tory who, after a personal request from Mr Farage, is investing his energy in UKIP.

Alby is a straight-talking businessman. To watch him work Romford market, loudhailer in hand, is to see a master at work. Time after time he gets the thumbs up from passers-by. He puts it down to the anti-establishment appeal of UKIP, but his own personality helps too.

There is one potentially ugly confrontation when his attempts to explain the party's immigration policy are interpreted negatively. He politely fends off a diatribe of criticism before explaining: "That's what politics is all about. I welcome people with opposite opinions."

Tony and Fay Tsiappouli run a cafe in Romford. They have both voted Labour in the past but not now, UKIP is their new party of choice. Fay has MS but says her treatment centre is struggling to make ends meet.

Tony explains: "Don't get me wrong. I ain't got a problem with immigration but like don't let's say, use all your funds on immigration and you can't look after your own people."

Image caption Tony and Fay Tsiappouli used to be Labour voters

The plain-speaking appeal of Mr Farage also matters. Until he does something to lose their trust, they are prepared to believe he isn't like other politicians.

By July, the tepid relationship we have with UKIP HQ has turned frosty. We are examining a variety of stories concerning Mr Farage and the party, some of them emanating from former friends and colleagues of the party leader.

We consider this routine - they are just normal journalistic enquiries. But UKIP HQ thinks otherwise and in the blink of a strident email they withdraw all co-operation.

The shutters immediately come down across the party. Senior party figures, who I have been on first name terms with, now say they cannot engage with us anymore. And we're told Mr Farage will not do an interview for the programme.

'Hatchet job'

I won't believe this until I hear it from the man himself. I run into him in Strasbourg and ask him why. He responds with a question of his own: "What's the upside?"

Mr Farage says he knows that Panorama has been talking to former UKIP members - what he calls the "dregs of rejects" - but he later softens his stance and says he will co-operate.

We part on good terms, I think, but weeks pass before we hear from him again. When he does respond, it's just a touch unusual. Not what he says but how he says it.

We had followed up our chat in Strasbourg with an email detailing some of the points we hoped to cover in the interview. And we awaited a reply. None came. But one evening a missive addressed to our producer, from Mr Farage, popped up on the UKIP website.

The online statement made clear he had changed his mind - he wouldn't give us an interview. He said our questions showed we were "adopting a specific agenda" rather than being fair and balanced, and that a programme "explaining the workings of the EU" would be far more beneficial "than a tedious BBC hatchet job".

He accused us of planning a "new establishment attack on UKIP" and he said he had dealt with the points we raised in the past.

The post concluded: "This letter is my final word on the matter, so please do not continue the correspondence with me." Although the statement was set out as a letter, it never arrived at the BBC. But we got the message loud and clear.

Since then, Mr Farage's self-styled "People's Army" has continued its onward march.

Game-changers in British politics don't come along very often but Mr Farage may just fit that billing. His party is celebrating its first elected Westminster MP with the hope of more to come.

He says he's leading his "People's Army" with a new "spin-free" brand of politics. But a big question remains for voters. Is Nigel Farage really that different from the politicians he criticises?

Watch Panorama: The Farage Factor on BBC1 at 20:30 on 13 October and then on the BBC iPlayer in the UK.

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