The problem is the leader – but could anyone else do better?
Revolutions devouring their own creators is hardly a novelty but UKIP are giving a fascinating new take on an old theme. They were never the most disciplined of parties and perhaps that was, for some, part of their attraction. Even so, since their crowning glory with their success in the referendum, they’ve not been so much undisciplined but ungovernable.
After Nigel Farage stepped down in September 2016, they’ve worked through no fewer than five leaders or acting leaders in the space of 16 months. By next week, they could be onto their sixth if Henry Bolton is forced out over his girlfriend’s racist tweets and over whether he was truthful in his statements as to whether they’d subsequently split up. This is taking the Throwaway Society to a whole new level – and as with other one-time use items, there’s a cost that comes with such excessive consumption. (To be fair to UKIP, they did make Nigel Farage reusable but even that’s no longer a solution).
With infighting, incompetence and instability on this scale, UKIP’s voice has become completely absent from the political debate at a time when their core issue is still very much live and when the fight to prevent Brexit – forlorn though that may be – still has vocal and powerful advocates. Certainly their support is a fraction of what it was but they still polled nearly 600,000 votes at the 2017 general election: around 70,000 more than the Greens despite standing 89 fewer candidates. Media access would be there for the asking.
The simple analysis would be to say that UKIP’s central problem is that Brexit has robbed it of its purpose and identity – and to a large extent, that’s true. But it’s far from the whole story and shouldn’t be used as an excuse for their subsequent collapse, for two main reasons.
Firstly, Brexit is a process and one which is likely to take much longer than many expected and leave Britain much closer to the EU than many natural UKIP voters would have expected. There is a story there to be sold and resentment there to be mined.
That opportunity would only take UKIP so far. The political class may be obsessed with Europe at the moment but few of the public are. Sure, it scores highly on polls measuring issues of concern because there is a lot of risk involved and because it’s in the news a lot. For all that, few members of the public are bothered about the detail and few votes will be won campaigning on it. There might be enough for a party polling in low single figures to progress but probably not much further than mid-single figures if its campaigning was limited to that alone. Even then, once Brexit is done and dusted, the issue will again drop off the public’s radar.
However, there’s no reason for a radical anti-establishment right-of-centre party to limit itself in such a way and a populist party campaigning on domestic issues as well as international ones would have plenty of scope to eat into the vote shares of a Tory party which has been on the defensive ever since the shock of last year’s election result, a Labour Party whose leadership stance is widely at odds with the values of many of its traditional supporters, and Lib Dem and Green parties which have wholly failed to capture the NOTA vote. There are more than enough examples across Europe and beyond to demonstrate what’s possible when the old order struggles. Indeed, we don’t even need to look abroad: capturing that vote in 2012-13 was precisely what prompted Cameron into promising the referendum in the first place.
But that was then: when it had money, an effective leader and an esprit de corps. With a highly talented leader now, it would still stand a decent chance of capitalising on the numerous opportunities before it and transitioning for a post-Brexit role. Instead, if it can’t sort out its internal problems – and given the depth of current divisions and the paucity of talent available, that looks the most likely outcome – it is heading for utter irrelevance.
p.s. I did think about writing about the impending US government shutdown or Nick Boles’ comments on Theresa May. But on the former, this is just more of the same: it will change very little unless a shutdown goes on for weeks. On the latter, the only point of interest is that he’s said it publicly. Again, it’s not going to change anything.