WHEN I meet a famous person, I’m reassured if I find their off-screen persona chimes with their public image.
So when I ran in to Nigel Farage in a Brussels pub nearly five years ago, I was heartened to discover that his “big gob from the golf club” routine appeared to be genuine.
Beer in one hand, fag in the other, he came across as confident, opinionated and not especially interested in any part of a conversation which didn’t involve him talking. In other words, the same impression that he gives in every interview he does.
This authenticity is part of the appeal of his United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which is due to make a significant breakthrough this week.
The anti-European Union group is almost certainly in for a great day tomorrow as voters go to the polls in rural councils across England.
We sophisticated types in our metropolitan districts will not be voting this year, but it will be interesting nonetheless to see how our country cousins mark their ballot papers.
UKIP has put forward candidates in three quarters of the seats up for grabs tomorrow – a huge rise from just 25% when these councils were last contested in 2009.
The party is on the crest of a wave, consistently finishing above the Lib Dems in opinion polls and coming ever closer to winning its first seat in Parliament – 14% in the Corby by-election last November, 21% in Rotherham a fortnight later and 28% in Eastleigh a few months ago.
If voters do rally to the UKIP flag tomorrow, Mr Farage’s rumpled authenticity must take some of the credit.
A few weeks ago I read an article about the UKIP leader’s local in Kent, where all the punters know him and most seem to like him.
What struck me most about the story was how you couldn’t write a similar piece about any of the other three party leaders. Just the fact that Mr Farage has a local sets him apart from his mainstream rivals.
I very much doubt Nick Clegg has a regular haunt in that place which he insists on calling his “home city of Sheffield”. And I don’t imagine the phrase “usual, please” has ever passed the lips of Ed Miliband or David Cameron.
The three main party leaders are politicians to their fingertips, serving time as special advisers as they took the inside track to a life of red boxes and chauffeur-driven limousines.
Mr Farage, by contrast, appears to be a conviction politician, someone who really does despise the European Union and all its ways.
Were it not for what he sees as the meddling of Brussels bureaucrats, I imagine he would have been quite happy with the obscurity of some Home Counties bar stool.
Mr Farage also has the great advantage of being able to speak English in complete sentences, a skill which most mainstream politicians have lost in the post-Blair world.
UKIP has built on its leader’s appeal by altering its traditional Brussels-bashing propaganda in the last few months to tap in to a richer seam of prejudice.
The party has mentioned the words “Bulgaria” and “Romania” an awful lot in recent times.
UKIP’s party political broadcast for tomorrow’s elections made much of its anti-immigration stance, admirably undeterred by the fact that county councillors have as much say over Johnny Foreigner’s residency status as they do about whether the sun rises in the east.
With the right leader and the right message – or maybe that should be the “far-right message” – UKIP is in for a good day tomorrow. The only surprise is that it took the party so long.
The last general election – set against the backdrop of a massively unpopular government, a faltering economy and the MPs’ expenses scandal – seemed tailor-made for minor parties to break through.
But, with the exception of Green leader Caroline Lucas, the minnows fluffed their lines back in 2010. BNP boss Nick Griffin was famously squashed by Labour in Barking and Mr Farage trailed in a sickly third behind the speaker John Bercow in Buckingham.
Three years on from the general election, the economy remains weak and the government is deeply unpopular. MPs may no longer expect us to pay for their duck-houses, but they do whinge about their £60,000-plus salaries just often enough to keep that wound raw.
The Westminster class, having offered the upstarts one golden opportunity to break the three-party mould in 2010, has been good enough to give the little guys a second chance tomorrow.
Come Friday, the post-mortem will begin. The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems will all be asking themselves what they can do to stop more of their voters drifting off to UKIP.
There are many ways to counter the anti-EU fringe. But one of the easiest is to promote some representatives who seem vaguely normal.
People who’ve worked somewhere other than Westminster would be a good start. People who don’t use phrases like “we’ve got a job of work to do going forward” would help too.
And it would also be good if the mainstream parties could produce one or two politicians that we could vaguely see ourselves having a pint with – even if we know we might struggle to get a word in edgeways.