UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage chose to kick off his pre-election national tour
in the small Cornish town of Callington yesterday. Simon Parker went along to see him in action.
"I am just like you," was UKIP leader Nigel Farage's overriding message as he mingled with shoppers and dropped in at the Bull's Head for a pint. "I have the same hopes, the same concerns."
Short on policy revelations and long on chumminess, the thrust of the first leg of his two-week pre-election itinerary was to reassure those who might be uncertain that UKIP was not a party of "eccentrics, fruitcakes and gadflies", as Mr Farage's arch-nemesis David Cameron would have it.
Speaking to an audience of some 300 in Callington Town Hall, the man who touts himself as "Britain's most popular party leader" briefly laid out his aims, before offering the debate to the floor.
With standing room only and some people listening from corridors, he fielded an hour of questions on subjects from education and immigration to the economy and – unsurprisingly – Europe.
Boosted by its recent success in the Eastleigh by-election, where UKIP were second to the Liberal Democrats – with a 27.8% share of the vote – pushing the Conservatives into third place, he confirmed that his anti-EU party would field a record 2,000 candidates in the local council elections on May 2.
Billed as an open meeting, with the minimum of stage management, Mr Farage found himself on largely friendly ground. And although party officials were at pains to promote a policy of open questioning, there were moments when the meeting felt like a series of prompts for UKIP policy pronouncements.
Not so, said national campaign manager Rob Burberry, adding: "This meeting and the ones to follow over the next two weeks are all about bringing politics back to the people.
"You might hate UKIP and hate Nigel Farage, but you are still more than welcome. You can tell him what you like – which is not the case at other party meetings, which are minutely stage-managed."
One robust exchange between the stage and retired teacher Roger Catchpole saw Mr Farage squirming for a moment or two over a question key to UKIP's very existence: Who makes the laws in the European Union? Despite Mr Catchpole's accurate statement that the EU "proposes" laws and national parliaments "make" them, he was drowned out by the loud boos of a handful of audience members who were clearly only paying lip-service to the idea of free speech.
To his credit, Mr Farage did listen to his political opponent – even if his response was flippant.
Before retiring to the Bull's Head for a pint, the South East England MEP explained that the aim of his tour was to target traditional strongholds of the big three parties. He said: "Many ordinary people feel disenfranchised, but our policies appeal to them. The notion that everyone who votes UKIP is a retired lieutenant colonel living in Wiltshire who chokes on his breakfast because he can't believe the front page of The Daily Telegraph is a myth."
However, a group of A-level politics students from Saltash Community School were not impressed with the rhetoric. Liz Morrish said that while leader Mr Farage had an "impressive and engaging" style, she did not agree with UKIP policies. Fellow student Tom Jordan added: "He's trying to target the people who don't usually vote or haven't voted before – people who sometimes don't fully understand the policies. They are only convinced by him because he is a charismatic speaker."