No one needs to tell Paul Sykes that a week is a long time in politics.
It was last Sunday that the Yorkshire tycoon announced he was prepared to do whatever it takes to set Britain free from the EU and he was starting by lending his weight – and considerable fortune – to Ukip.
Twenty-four hours later, the first of a series of advertisements ran in the Yorkshire Post featuring a life-size photograph of David Cameron, apparently silenced by an EU gag. Occupying the whole of a broadsheet page, there was nothing subtle about the campaign or the Ukip-commissioned opinion poll which said 74 per cent of Yorkshire voters are against the relaxation of Romanian and Bulgarian immigration rules which will begin on January 1.
By 7.30am that morning Sykes was being grilled by Evan Davis about his political motivations on the Today programme. Now, just a few days later, the story has moved on again and in the drawing room of his rather grand home, near Ripon, Sykes is busy rejigging his diary.
“Look at this,” he says reaching for a copy of the Daily Mail. The paper has also commissioned a survey which has drawn similar conclusions and the headline which declares ‘Enough is enough Mr Cameron’ has made Sykes’ morning. “We have changed the political momentum. Not bad for a week’s work and it all started here in Yorkshire. I thought we might have to push a littler harder than we have, but the momentum has been incredible. We had a number of other things planned, but we now need to take stock. I always said that when people knew the full facts about the European Union they would be on our side.”
To call Sykes a Euro-sceptic doesn’t go anywhere near far enough. If he thought he could get rid of the EU by taking the Brussels parliament apart brick by brick he would be on the next flight to Belgium and as he has got older, the 70-year-old’s frustrations and distrust have only deepened.
“The last time the British people were given a say about our role in Europe was in 1975. Back then we voted for a Common Market, but we didn’t vote for a Common Country. Thirty-eight years on and we need a referendum. The British people might decide they want to stay in the EU. If that’s the case I won’t like it, but at least the public will have spoken. At the moment they have been silenced and I don’t know why our current crop of politicians have left it to an ex-Barnsley tyre fitter to say what so many other people have been thinking.”
Ex-Barnsley tyre fitter he might be, but a few years ago Sykes was also the 26th wealthiest person in Britain, having amassed a £650m fortune. It’s the combination of his background and his financial clout which makes him so dangerous a thorn in the side of his once beloved Conservative Party.
The son of a miner, Sykes left school with no qualifications and, after a few years fitting tyres, he progressed to dealing in car parts and selling buses to the Far East. However, it was the later property deals which sealed his fortune. Having invested heavily in Meadowhall, when the Sheffield mall was sold, Sykes walked away with £280m and he left his mark on Leeds through his involvement in the redevelopment of the Victoria Quarter. Expanding into technology markets, there was a time in the 1990s when his firm Planet Online was Britain’s third largest internet service provider.
“I’ve been so focused on climbing the tree that I forget how far I’ve come. Sometimes I stop and wonder how it happened. I’m still working class, even now, and I know where I come from. I grew up in a socialist family, my dad was a Labour man. I didn’t know anything else, but when I started my business slowly but surely I woke up to what else was out there. I’m still not sure how I found my way out of Barnsley, maybe it was the pursuit of better things.”
While there’s clearly been a bob or two spent on his home which is set in a few hundred acres of glorious Yorkshire countryside there’s none of the kind of bling associated with the self-made man stereotype and Sykes, who is separated from his wife, insists he has never been driven by wealth.
The money he’s earned has allowed him to indulge his passion for the environment as one of the National Trust’s major supporters and every so often there’s the odd indulgence, like the surprise birthday party his two daughters organised in the grounds of his home last May where Robbie Williams provided the entertainment.
However, the biggest dent in his wealth has been due to his political activities. He’s spent £6m over the years on campaigns designed to remove Britain from the EU, first alongside the late Sir James Goldsmith and the Referendum Party and latterly with Ukip.
“Some reports have said I’m bankrolling UKip. I’m not. I’m not just a financier, I am part of a small team which is driving the agenda. It might cost me a small fortune, but I see it as an investment for my family, for my county and my country.”
A long time Conservative, he and the party first went their separate ways in 1991. The split was unsurprisingly down to a row over Europe and while William Hague brought him back into the fold in 2000 promising to rule Britain out of the single currency, the reunion didn’t last long. According to Sykes when Hague went back on his word, making the pledge only for the lifetime of that parliament, he walked away again.
Following this week’s events there has been the odd murmur from the Conservative Party but no formal approach and it’s doubtful whether the current lot could win him back.
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“When I met him, his fly was down, his tie was undone and his hair was a mess. To think that this is the man running London, it beggars belief. I just can’t be near him, he drives me barmy.
“The Conservative party needs to get back to representing the people. It’s no use them calling for an in/out referendum in 2017, we need action now. The borders of this country belong to the people of Great Britain. They shouldn’t be removed without our say so.”
Sykes is aware that those voicing Ukip’s philosophy have been accused of xenophobia or worse, racism. Nick Clegg has already described the party as unpatriotic.
“The world has gone mad. There is nothing xenophobic in asking questions like how can you expect working lads in Yorkshire to compete with someone used to earning a sixth of their wage. As for Cleggy, well I’d be more than happy to compare our patriotic credentials face to face. Over the years I’ve created 160,000 jobs and through my various businesses, I hope I’ve spread the wealth about a bit. And exactly what has he done?” Sykes doesn’t buy any argument which says Britain’s departure from the EU would lead to economic isolation. Nor does he accept that it’s better to influence from within rather than being a lone voice on the outside.
“I’m not anti-European but I am anti-European Union. I’m against the Brussels-based bureaucracy which has tied together all these nations in an attempt to create a single market. It’s a mess and worse still, it’s a mess we pay to be a part of to the tune of £54m a day. I want more trade with European nations, not less, but I don’t see why it has to go through Brussels.
“We buy more goods from European countries than we export and Germany isn’t going to stop selling us BMWs just because we’re not part for the EU. Of course there could be an amicable withdrawal. You know what? I could go in there tomorrow and do a deal.”
You wouldn’t put it past him. Sykes is confident that in next May’s European Parliament elections Ukip can win more than 30 seats. It would secure the party real influence in the chamber and for Sykes it would also be a significant blow to an institution he blames for the demise of John Major, Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson and his beloved Margaret Thatcher.
“She was the best socialist I have ever known,” he says without batting an eyelid. “Back in Barnsley in the 1980s people were buying their own council houses, they was a real sense of opportunity. South Yorkshire lost its coal industry, but that wasn’t because of Margaret Thatcher, it was because it was a state-owned industry and as such it was always bound to fail.”
When Britain was debating entry into the single currency, Sykes said that if the pound was replaced by the euro he would go to live in New Zealand. Depending what happens in the next few months, it’s a threat he may need to revisit.
“I don’t want to leave, I love this country, I love this place,” he says pointing towards the drawing room window and across his land. “I can tell you the name of every bird that flies and every fish that swims. I love Britain and I just think it deserves a better deal. We have to start recreating a new tomorrow.”