Ukip floundering after Brexit vote robs it of its main role

London Letter: Theresa May prospers as post-Farage party fumbles for leader

Ukip’s national executive committee disqualified Farage’s favourite, North-West MEP Steven Woolfe, because he missed the nomination deadline by 17 minutes. File photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Ukip’s national executive committee disqualified Farage’s favourite, North-West MEP Steven Woolfe, because he missed the nomination deadline by 17 minutes. File photograph: Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

 

The first member of Ukip I ever met was Colin Merton, who lived at the Savile Club in Mayfair for many years, and was run over and killed by a milk float in 2008, when he was 81. Late at night, when almost everyone else had left the club, Colin liked to play Chopin nocturnes on the piano in the ornate, 19th-century ballroom, lit only by the moonlight and the streetlamp outside.

During the day, he was always up for an argument about Europe, and when I lived in Brussels he would quiz me closely about arcane details of EU law and regulations, and about the nefarious plots being hatched in chancelleries across the continent.

Nothing I told him had discernible impact, not least because he was so deaf that he missed much of what was said around him, and was inclined to fall asleep halfway through any conversation.

Colin stood three times as a Ukip parliamentary candidate for the Cities of London and Westminster, never cherishing the smallest hope of a win, or even a place.

An Old Etonian, he canvassed vigorously in council estates where mainstream candidates feared to venture, and as his Daily Telegraph obituary noted, he had an individual campaigning style.

On the doorstep he would ask: “Would you like a Ukip leaflet?” Tenant: “Er . . .” Merton, hand cupped round ear: “No? Oh well, can’t say I blame you. But good day to you nonetheless.”

I thought of Colin, who won 464 votes in his best election result, when Britain voted to leave the EU six weeks ago, counting as one of the consolations of Brexit the pleasure it would have given him.

As the results came in during the early hours of the morning, Nigel Farage and the rest of the Ukip leadership emerged from their long, bibulous celebrations to hail their victory. But in the weeks since then, Ukip has seemed less a party whose hour has come than a quarrelsome, directionless rabble, all boozed up with no place to go.

Internal strife

This week, when Ukip’s national executive committee announced the list of candidates to succeed Farage as leader, it immediately plunged the party into a fresh civil war. The committee disqualified Farage’s favourite, North-West MEP Steven Woolfe, because he missed the nomination deadline by 17 minutes.

Woolfe, Farage and their allies detect a plot by Ukip’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, and others to install a more moderate leader and move the party away from its focus on immigration. With Woolfe gone, another hardline MEP, Diane James, is the frontrunner, but if she loses out to a moderate, the party could split.

Ukip’s biggest donor, Arron Banks, has long considered transforming the party into a more broad-based, populist movement along the lines of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy.

Banks’s pro-Brexit campaign group, leave.eu, has a wealth of data on potential supporters and he has the resources to bankroll a new populist party.

With 60 per cent of Labour-held constituencies voting for Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn failing to impress voters as a potential prime minister, Ukip ought to have an opening. But polling since the referendum has seen Ukip’s support slump to 12 per cent, too low to make an impact in Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system.

Part of Ukip’s problem is that, by winning the referendum, it has robbed itself of a role. If Brexit had been defeated, Ukip could have posed as the champion of the defeated minority, cheated of victory by an establishment cartel.

Snap election

Since Theresa May’s appointment as prime minister, the Conservatives have surged in the polls, buoyed by her strong start in office and by the contrast between the party’s apparent unity and Labour’s divisions.

Most voters trust May, for now, to manage Brexit and she has signalled a number of policy shifts aimed at addressing the concerns of many of those who voted to leave the EU.

Labour fears that May will seize the moment to call a snap general election, either in October or February, which would leave both Labour and Ukip unprepared to mount a serious challenge.

With an enhanced majority, May would have the latitude she needs to negotiate a deal with the EU which maintains the greatest possible access to the European single market while controlling, but not ending, the free movement of people.

Such a deal, if Britain’s EU partners agree to it, would leave diehard Brexiteers unhappy, but might satisfy enough of those who voted Leave to ensure that Ukip returns to its former status as a small, quixotic movement for the most fervent of true believers.

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