The annual conference of Ukip at the weekend caused barely a political ripple; hardly surprising given the state of the party. To use a medical analogy the patient lies at the crisis point of the fever when it is not clear whether recovery or extinction will be the outcome. There wasn’t much media interest — I was one of very few journalists in the place and was greeted with touching gratitude — something of a novelty in my experience (full disclosure: I was there to flog some books). The reason for the media’s indifference is easy to understand: in what, to my knowledge is the first instance of its kind a party leader, Richard Braine, decided not to attend his own annual conference.
Under those circumstances it is fair to ask whether Ukip, the triumphant disruptor of British politics, is in its death throes. It is approaching an existential moment and it is not clear what political strategy might give it a fighting chance of survival. The task for Ukip, not an easy one, is nothing less than to forge an entire new political identity sufficiently distinctive and appealing to attract back its former voters.
It would be mocking affliction, though temptingly easy, to poke fun at the dwindling crowd of party activists who only half-filled a smallish hall at the functional conference centre on the outskirts of Newport. Yes, the members were an elderly lot, and yes, there weren’t many of them and yes, some of the star speakers failed to show. To use a footballing metaphor it was like the first match after losing the crucial game that condemns the club to relegation. The “Ukip ’til I die” crowd struggled to put on a brave face on it; the party chairman, Kirstan Herriot, managed to exude a professional optimism under what must have been very trying circumstances. How do you explain that your own party leader has decided he’s got better things to do than attend his own annual conference?
The semi-official explanation for his no-show was that ticket sales for the event had been low and he felt it would look bad if he were addressing an empty hall. But why would any ordinary member show up if the leader didn’t think it worth his time? The real reason has much more to do with the previous leader, Gerard Batten’s, decision to embrace the nativist firebrand Tommy Robinson as an adviser. A large faction, including Nigel Farage, could not accept a policy to move to a more explicitly Islamosceptic position.
Mr Farage, for whom Brexit really is the be-all and end-all, believed Batten’s initiative was a pointless distraction that unhelpfully resurrected old allegations of racism and intolerance and made it the grounds for finally breaking with Ukip and switching to the Brexit Party. And Farage is irreplaceable: no one else in Ukip comes near to him in terms of public recognition. Mr Braine, who is said to be a likeable fellow who cleaves to what he sees as the political “middle-ground” is apparently popular with the membership but as yet unknown to the wider public.
The immediate cause of the squabble between Mr Braine and Ukip’s National Executive Committee (NEC) is that Braine wanted Gerard Batten to be his deputy leader and the NEC objected. The NEC declared that because of his flirtation with Tommy Robinson Mr Batten was a person “not in good standing” with the party and forbade his appointment which infuriated Mr Braine – hence his decision not to attend the conference.
There are elections to the NEC underway among the members so it is possible that this is a dispute that can be resolved but even if it is Ukip faces a daunting set of problems. The party’s performance in recent elections has been dismal; it no longer has any MEPs while the toll on its grassroots base in local government has been calamitous. It suffered huge losses in local elections in both 2018 and 2019, leaving Ukip councillors thin on the ground. And as all parties know, success at local level is a litmus test of political health; once you lose the stalwarts energy drains from any party.
The question is: can the decline be halted and if so how? Is there escape from the political oblivion that so clearly beckons? Partly this will depend on how the Brexit issue finally resolves itself. If Boris Johnson can, by some miracle, conjure a successful Brexit agreement out of the current tangle of difficulties where would that leave Ukip? To many people the party’s unique selling point has always been its devotion to the Brexit cause but it has also developed a full set of social policies designed to appeal to its voter base, which is typically less affluent, patriotic and socially conservative.
The party’s biggest remaining name and best performer, Neil Hamilton, the ex-Tory MP and now member of the Welsh Assembly, was given prime billing on the first morning to kickstart proceedings. A fluent performer, who knows how to work an audience, he raised their spirits and gave the faithful something to hang their hopes on.
In his vision for Ukip’s future the primary task for the party will be to keep the UK out of the EU but also to present itself as unequivocally devoted to maintaining the Union. In ringing phrases Hamilton dismissed the UK’s experiment with devolution arguing that it has undermined Britain’s sense of national cohesion by creating alternative centres of power that compete with Westminster. These institutions, he says, not only confuse people’s feelings about their country but are also expensive and useless; Ukip’s position on the Welsh Assembly is that it should be abolished altogether.
Many conservatives might agree with such an analysis, Ukip members certainly do, although closing the Welsh Assembly, which is one of the few remaining political forums where the party has a meaningful presence might be regarded as a cavalier disregard of your own political self-interest. Ukip would close the Scottish Parliament too if it had its way but such a plan is hardly practical; though one can certainly make a strong case against devolution, a centralising approach which brought power back to Westminster would be a hard sell that would engender fanatical resistance from the political class in Cardiff and Edinburgh who do very well out of the current settlement.
In a coffee break after Hamilton’s speech I spoke to one greybeard, hung with Ukip long-service medallions, and asked him what he thought: does Ukip have a future? He looked at me shrewdly: “If Boris gets us out,” he said, “I’m not sure we’ll have a future…” which surely sums up the party’s dilemma. Leaving the EU has undoubtedly been the policy that brought people into Ukip but to counter the charge that they were a political one-trick pony they have spent years assembling a complete array of policies on every issue. While this was clearly a necessity when fighting general and local elections (don’t all proper parties have a manifesto?) there always remained a question mark over what, if anything, lay beyond Brexit.
There is a strain of thought among some in the party that Ukip’s best, last hope is to position itself as a truly populist party. It would be socially conservative and mildly Islamosceptic. Objectively this makes some sense. Unlike almost anywhere else in Europe there is no populist right-wing party in Britain, which means some potentially fertile political terrain is to all intents and purposes unoccupied. The mainstream parties are all essentially socially liberal and support the status quo on issues ranging from immigration to the ever-expanding ‘equality’ agenda, so a party which stood outside that consensus would at least be distinctive.
For the moment, though, Ukip doesn’t know its own mind and is struggling to get a hearing. The Brexit Party might be a Potemkin village of a political party but it has effectively stolen Ukip’s clothes on the issue that has always defined the Kippers in the public imagination.
Whether the Brexit Party itself has any long term future is debatable; it is difficult to see how a party that has such a disparate spread of opinion among its leading personalities (think Ann Widdecombe and Claire Fox) on everything other than Brexit itself will ever be able to formulate a coherent set of policies on other matters. What is more, does it even want to? Might the Brexit Party will disappear like morning mist in the golden rays that will flood us after our escape from the EU. And then, perhaps, Ukip will rise again.