It is a regular feature of horror films that, just when you think it has been destroyed, the monster lurches back into life one last time to terrorise the valiant hero. Right now the corpse of UKIP is lying slouched in the corner but with its poll ratings a quantum level higher than they were two months ago its body is twitching as if an electrical stimulus is being pumped through it. Can it return from the dead?
Following the Brexit vote, UKIP became a bit of a joke. It had a succession of increasingly-unsuitable leaders chosen through farcical leadership contests. For a surprisingly long time it held up well in the polls until seeing its rating disintegrate in the run-up to the 2017 election. In the end, it tallied just 1.8% of the UK vote, as the Conservatives absorbed all but the most hardcore supporters.
On the surface, things have not improved. The current UKIP leader, Gerald Batten, could not be picked out of an identity parade by most voters. Its general secretary compared UKIP to the Black Death. It nearly went bust following a court order that it had to underwrite legal costs following a libel case before a donor intervened. Former luminaries such as Nigel Farage and Arron Banks are currently engaged on other projects. At least three previous leading figures of the kipperati have set up their own parties.
Membership has seemingly collapsed. Precise numbers are not available but we got a good indication earlier this month when the UKIP Welsh leadership election was announced. The winner, Gareth Bennett, won with 269 votes and the whole electorate, in other words all of UKIP Wales’s members, was 876. A small village has just chosen its new idiot.
Yet the UKIP brand evidently remains strong. Despite everything, it is now tallying 5% or more in the polls. This has coincided, probably not by chance, with an apparent dip in Conservative poll ratings. This cohort of voters could prove significant for the chances of the two main parties next time.
There are good reasons to suspect that UKIP’s current polling would not be replicated at a general election in the short term. For a start, it would have difficulty even putting up a full slate of candidates. It is open to question whether they could afford to fund the deposits. Many voters would have no UKIP option to protest with.
If UKIP did field a full slate, many of them could be expected to add to the gaiety of the nation. Remember, one past UKIP leadership candidate claimed that a gay donkey tried to rape his horse and another advocated the mining of asteroids. Just imagine the quality of the next tier down. The candidates are likely to ensure that the UKIP vote is a very principles-driven vote.
So even if the UKIP vote were not squeezed by the major parties in the election campaign, as happened last time, there is every chance that their vote share would be no higher than last time if the election were held any time soon. The corpse may be twitching but these look, for now at least, like cadaveric spasms.
That isn’t as good news for the Conservatives as it sounds. For a start, just because disgruntled voters can’t vote for UKIP doesn’t mean they will vote for the Conservatives. Even if they don’t want to vote Labour (and some will), they can stay at home and not vote at all. Many might.
So the Conservatives will need to keep an eye on their right flank. The support of some of those 2017 voters is highly contingent.
Moreover, the obvious fragility of the Conservatives’ hard Brexit support means that the prospect of a new hard right party emerging cannot be ruled out. Arron Banks seems to be enjoying his self-image as a bad boy of Brexit and as controller of Leave.EU, with 181,000 twitter followers, has the numbers to set up a new vehicle.
The hard right still have one star player, Nigel Farage, and if he could be persuaded to rejoin the fray (whether under UKIP’s banner or elsewhere) he would immediately draw a large number of committed followers to his side. Perhaps the film that we are watching is not Terminator, but Terminator 2.
Or perhaps the film is Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Instead of starting a new party to take on the Conservatives, the hard right can try to take it over instead. Leave.EU have tweeted to encourage like-minded Leavers to join the Conservative party in order to be able to vote in the next leadership election.
Entryism would be a shortcut to political contention.Conservative Leavers already seem pretty focused on the topic of Brexit reliability and the more intense ones aren’t paying much regard to party boundaries.
Some at least of Leave.EU’s twitter followers have answered the call, and within three months these entryists will have a vote in the final round of any future Conservative leadership election campaign.
If they succeed, we might rapidly see both main parties as the territory of hardline activists with the MPs who are not true believers struggling to maintain their heads above the waves. If you think that politics has become too partisan in recent years, it might well get far worse. That really should give you the shivers and keep you awake at night.