Analysis: Ukip stumbles from tragedy to default state of farce

‘Altercation’ in Strasbourg seals Ukip’s reputation as most dysfunctional UK party

The news that Steven Woolfe’s injuries are less serious than at first feared has allowed Ukip, after teetering on the brink of tragedy, to lapse back into its default state of farce.

The "altercation" in Strasbourg has also achieved the remarkable feat of making the party's on-again-off-again leader, Nigel Farage, look like a figure of stability. And it has confirmed Ukip's reputation as the most dysfunctional of Britain's political parties, with the most sulphurous relationships among its leading figures.

The fisticuffs at the European Parliament capped a chaotic week that saw Farage return to the helm following the resignation of Diane James after just 18 days as leader. James was a reluctant leader from the start, who signed her election papers adding the words vi coactus, Latin for "under duress".

Woolfe might himself have become leader if he had not submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes late. Another leading figure, Suzanne Evans, was ineligible to stand because she had been suspended from the party for six months for "disloyalty".

Public insults

Farage is not on speaking terms with Ukip's only MP, Douglas Carswell, and he regularly exchanges public insults with the party's leader in Wales, former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton.

Other high-profile figures who have fallen out with Farage include former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, who left Ukip in 2005 after a few months as an MEP, telling colleagues they were all “barmy”.

Despite its chaotic leadership and party management, Ukip won 12.6 per cent of the votes cast in last year’s general election, making it the third largest party in terms of vote share, although it only won one seat at Westminster.

In 2014, the party topped the poll at the European Parliament elections. And this year, Ukip had its greatest triumph yet when Britain voted to leave the EU.

Labour’s unpopularity and the drift of many of its voters into the pro-Brexit camp seemed to offer Ukip opportunities in the former industrial areas of the midlands and the northeast, as well as in Wales. Jeremy Corbyn’s metropolitan style is anathema to some of Labour’s traditional white working-class supporters, some of whom are tempted by Ukip’s anti-immigration rhetoric.

Theresa May’s accession to the Conservative leadership and her embrace of the Brexit agenda has, however, eaten into Ukip’s support, and even tempted Woolfe to switch parties.

“I have been enthused from the start by Theresa May’s premiership,” he said. “Her support of new grammar schools, her words on social mobility, and the growing evidence that she is committed to a clean Brexit prompted me, as it did many of my friends and colleagues, to wonder whether our future was within her new Conservative party.”

Woolfe remains frontrunner to become Ukip’s next leader, but as he recovers in hospital in Strasbourg, he may have to reflect on the formidable challenge he faces in trying to transform the party from a feuding rabble into a credible third force in English politics.