Bad actors or conspiracy theories – the inside story of Farage’s battle for Clacton

Bad actors or conspiracy theories - the inside story of Farage’s battle for Clacton

As you drive into Clacton there are scores of pro-Farage Reform posters asking people to “save Britain” in what is becoming a struggle for the soul of right of centre politics.

Only as you travel out to the more genteel areas of the constituency like Frinton do they give way to “I stand with Giles” boards. But Giles Watling, the Tory MP defending his Clacton seat, may be the only Conservative candidate in this election with a wide coalition of support across the country willing him to win.

In the wake of the Channel 4 News expose of the Reform Clacton team and the racist comments by one of the canvassers Andrew Parker, Watling received a telephone call from Tony Blair’s former spin doctor Alastair Campbell, in normal circumstances no lover of Tories.

Giles Watling is defending his Clacton seat for the Tories (Giles Watling)

“Alastair wanted to know how he can help me stop Farage,” Mr Watling explained to The Independent. “I have had a lot of surprising people like that offering their help from across politics because they know I am the only one who can stop him [Farage] from getting into politics.”

He has even had a video message from Borris Johnson who appeared to be willing to forgive Watling for turning against him over Partygate if it helped stop Farage winning. It says a lot that two men who detest one another – Campell and Johnson – should unite around Watling.

In contrast Farage is set to deploy Ann Widdecombe, the former rightwing Tory minister turned Brexit Party MEP and Reform UK supporter, to persuade the locals to back him.

Less than 24 hours after the call from Campbell, Watling was at the Great Bentley show in the constituency where he ran into two young female Labour activists whose candidate Jovan Owusu-Nepaul now seems to have unofficially ducked out of the race.

“They both told me they are thinking of voting for me. Obviously I was only too happy to encourage them.”

Before becoming an MP Mr Watling was a well known actor for more than 50 years, appearing in popular programs like Bread, ‘Allo ‘Allo! and Grange Hill.

He quips: “I never saw myself being cast to play the role of St George to slay the dragon. But here I am.”

Farage’s Clacton headquarters is in a former Chinese restaurant (David Maddox)

The row surrounding the appearance of another actor – Andrew Parker, the alleged Reform canvasser – seems to have galvanised what seems to be a battle for the very heart of right of centre politics in Britain which is being played out most of all in Clacton.

Parker’s use of the racist “p*** word” about Rishi Sunak played out on the Channel 4 News sting has confirmed the belief of Watling and those supporting him that “there is something dark about the politics of Farage and the people he attracts”.

Reform have made an official complaint against Channel 4 and accused them of “political interference” noting that Parker is an actor and alleging he was hired to discredit the Reform campaign there.

Channel 4 News have denied this as has Parker, although he initially also denied being an actor.

Andrew Parker the actor who is at the centre of the row (Channel 4)

But the “conspiracy theory nonsense” has certainly not convinced Watling.

“There’s always an excuse. It’s always somebody else’s fault. It’s like Farage wants to blame the vetting company for his awful candidates making racist remarks or supporting Hitler. The fact is these people are always attracted to his politics.

“I know I am up against it with someone with such international celebrity but there’s a real danger of people following someone with a ready smile and that sort of politics. It’s like what happened in the 1930s.”

A few minutes walk from Watling’s campaign office opposite Clacton Town Hall is the former Chinese restaurant on Pier Avenue near the seafront being used as the campaign headquarters where The Independent met Peter Harris, Farage’s election agent.

While Watling’s HQ was relatively quiet there was a steady stream of volunteers in Farage’s “people’s army” going in and out of the Reform base. There were also journalists and cameras outside the front door and round the back who were being carefully kept out.

Mr Harris, a local independent councillor who quit the Tories after Watling helped oust Boris Johnson but had previously run Labour close in 2015 in Dagenham as the Ukip candidate, is one of the reasons Farage chose Clacton. In order to win while also campaigning as leader of a party Farage needed an organised ground campaign and with Peter Harris he has an effective and experienced operator.

Peter Harris, Farage’s election agent (David Maddox)

“It was the honour of my life to be asked to be Nigel’s election agent. This could be the biggest thing yet, maybe only second to the EU referendum result.”

Harris had been forced to have a difficult conversation with his family when Farage decided to run. They were supposed to be on “the holiday of a lifetime” in Japan visiting his son and instead were forced to postpone the trip.

But the night before we met he had wondered if all his efforts and sacrifices had come to nothing when Channel 4 News broke its inside investigation into the campaign team revealing appalling racism from Parker.

Mr Harris admitted to having a sleepless night on Thursday.

“I could not believe it. What this guy said was utterly despicable. I was just completely shocked and disgusted. What a total low life”

Harris was actually shaking with anger.

“We have had so many good and decent people come from this area and around the country wanting to help and this guy poisons everything.”

Ann Widdecombe is set to be deployed in Clacton (@reformparty_uk/Twitter)

But then claims about Parker began to emerge in the morning. It turned out he was a professional actor who was “well spoken” but could do “gruff voices” and specialised in playing villains on his profile.

Not surprisingly the talk in Reform’s HQ by Friday morning was of a conspiracy.

Harris explained: “He [Parker] only turned up one day to help. It just happened to be the day that Channel 4 were secretly filming, and they just happened to decide to get into his car.

“He is not from the constituency, but the problem is that we get so many volunteers that it is impossible to scrutinise everyone. But I have to say, I thought something didn’t stack up about him when I met him.”

There was an element of frustration too because he was forced to tell another campaigner from the area not to return because of comments he was caught making on camera and another was spoken to for joking in the pub about a campaign finance issue.

Farage on the amusement arcade in clacton (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

“I have told our volunteers to remember we will be the most scrutinised local campaign in history. Other parties make mistakes and have bad apples, but ours will be blown up much more than the others because Nigel is our candidate.”

Other campaigners were pointing out that Mr Watling, the Tory MP defending the seat, was also an actor and wondering if he had something to do with the conspiracy with no evidence to back that up.

In some ways the truth no longer mattered; it had become the latest chapter in the great establishment conspiracy to stop Farage after the EU, banks, the mainstream media, Westminster politics and the rest.

And a quick straw poll in Clacton town centre suggested it had made little difference. Shrugged shoulders and a constant “I didn’t see it” were the main responses.