Can UKIP remain a credible force if their leader doesn’t fight a parliamentary seat?

Can UKIP remain a credible force if their leader doesn’t fight a parliamentary seat?

When Theresa May announced she was calling a General Election it may have shocked everyone, but it arguably presented the biggest challenge for UKIP. At the weekend, party leader Paul Nuttall suggested in the Sunday Express that his party would not stand in a number of constituencies to allow Brexit-backing MPs a clear run. This might make sense for the local UKIP branch in Vauxhall, seat of the eurosceptic Labour MP Kate Hoey, but some inside the party fear that failing to stand against scores of Tory leavers runs the risk of needlessly giving the Government a blank cheque if the polls are right and Theresa May achieves a thumping majority.

Paul Nuttall wrote of his plan that he is ‘putting country before party’ but he fails to acknowledge the opposition that he will encounter from within his own ranks, many of whom would say that UKIP is the only major force opposing a so-called ‘soft’ Brexit. The most committed Brexiteers on the Tory backbenches have been strangely quiet about demanding control of British fishing waters post-Brexit; and there was virtually no disquiet from them when it was mooted that elements of freedom of movement could continue after Brexit. How important will they be if Theresa May achieves a majority that is large enough to render those hardcore Brexiteers impotent?

The other problem is the UKIP leader’s timidness. Nuttall has just announced some new policies, none of which had anything to do with Brexit, but yesterday’s event ended in farce when Paul Nuttall hid himself in a room to avoid questions over whether he was even going to stand as a candidate himself. Obviously Nuttall is still smarting from his failure to win the recent Stoke Central by-election, despite the fact that 70% of voters there had backed Leave. Answering questions as he made his escape to a waiting taxi, he quipped that UKIP leaders have achieved a lot without becoming MPs. This is true, but Nigel Farage never shied away from the scrutiny of an election. The leader of the party which came third in the national voteshare last time surely needs to stand to maintain any crumb of credibility. He seemed reluctant to stand for the party leadership last year and one has to wonder if he’s finding the pressure too much.

Nuttall’s decision not to challenge Brexiteers risks re-branding the party as a spent force. The policy announcements on the burka and Islamic schools will no doubt thrill his party faithful, but to finish the job they set out to do and achieve their raison d’être of getting the UK cleanly out of the EU once and for all, they surely need to be calling Theresa May out on every backslide and wobble. Not in a way that undermines our negotiating hand, but in a way that provides opposition on Brexit from the 52% – the kind of opposition that ministers actually need.

There is a significant element inside UKIP that doesn’t see the Tories as part of a political fraternity – CCHQ certainly doesn’t see UKIP that way – but, rather, as the only party that could ruin our only chance of a clean Brexit. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that. Money is tight, resources are thin on the ground and UKIP are finding it hard to field candidates – it’s just that, of all people, the UKIP party leader surely ought to be one of them.