Will UKIP be a casualty of Brexit?

Will UKIP be a casualty of Brexit?

It was the referendum they thought they’d lose. As Nigel Farage conceded defeat just after polls closed on 23rd June last year, UKIP members were convinced they’d been stitched up by an establishment bent on stifling the fledgling eurosceptic party. But, as dawn broke on 24th June, UKIP found they had achieved their number one policy objective, completed their raison d’être and won their referendum.

They now had a problem they could have only dreamed of 25 years earlier when the party was founded in opposition to the Maastricht Treaty: what now?

Even before the UK and the EU begin Brexit negotiations, the core aim that has bound UKIP members together for years is now at risk of unravelling. When Raheem Kassam launched his short-lived leadership bid under the slogan ‘Make UKIP great again’ just months after the party helped to win the most significant political realignment for forty years, one Tory staffer wryly asked: “When was the golden age?”

Many in UKIP feel more sidelined now than when Vote Leave was chosen over the UKIP-dominated alternative to be given designation by the Electoral Commission as the official Leave campaign,  and Farage kept out of the set piece TV debates. For Kippers, Brexit was their baby. Many are angry that the Conservative Party now has been given full parenting rights when they are convinced that the result would have been different without their ground campaign. Tim Aker, UKIP MEP for the East of England, is scathing: “Chicken S***ts like Bill Cash and John Redwood… five minutes to midnight they decided they wanted to leave. They would never say it publicly. I don’t trust them. No one in their right mind would trust them”. 

But could anger at a perceived half-hearted Brexit be enough to bind the party together? Beneath the unified aim of leaving the EU the divergence of opinion is big. In his speech to the party’s spring conference last week, former leader Farage repeated his view that Brexit and Trump are part of the same revolt against the elite, going on to attack those within UKIP who want the party to go mainstream. But fellow MEP Patrick O’Flynn hit back, saying: “If it means going off in a Donald Trump-style way then people think ‘that’s extremism’… He seems to be worried people like me are crypto-SDP [supporters] and he couldn’t be more wrong. But we want to be a mainstream party, that’s how you win elections.”

Suzanne Evans, the Health spokeswoman agreed: “I don’t know why he’s suggesting we’re not a radical party… we are a radical party at the cutting edge, but that doesn’t mean you have to be shouting off about immigration the whole time.” Neil Hamilton, now a Welsh Assembly Member, didn’t even bother watching the speech, citing Farage’s “personality cult”.

These are Farage’s enemies, but O’Flynn and Evans represent a sizeable conservative wing that is in danger of changing to a capital C if the Tories deliver on Brexit. As an example of the divisions, one half of the crowd clapped when Farage was endorsing his new ‘American friend’ on stage whilst the rest awkwardly stayed silent.

The real problem for UKIP is that the Tories, after the Cameroon era, have been able to take on the Brexiteers’ mantle. Theresa May wants a “red, white and blue Brexit” and has said that no deal is better than a bad one. Bill Etheridge, MEP for the West Midlands, fully supported Farage’s attack on those who want the party to go ‘mainstream’ but he accepts that there is a real danger of losing support to the Tories: “Theresa May is the classic politician, she always says what they want to hear and then does the opposite. I don’t how people buy it, but a number of people [do]. Even in UKIP.”

Before the overwhelming crisis engulfed the Labour Party, UKIP had already begun tacking to the left on topics like the NHS and tax. Gone is the colourful Godfrey Bloom’s robust defence of a flat tax, explained with an analogy of pub drinkers. In the 2015 manifesto, the party ditched the previously proposed 31% flat rate of income tax and the new leader, Paul Nuttall, now wants a cash injection to save what he once called a “monolithic hangover from days gone by”.

UKIP have a real chance to exploit a bad Brexit and the failure of the Labour Party to understand the working class, but will people realise they’re more than just anti-EU? “It depends how good we are,” says Etheridge. “If we keep on banging on about it [the EU] then we are going to be seen as that. If we say we’re going to make sure they achieve Brexit and after that we want XYZ done then we won’t.” Perhaps Etheridge has a better perspective than most Kippers on how to carry on post-Brexit as he didn’t join the party for the European issue. “My idea has always been that UKIP should be a word that means a whole set of libertarian ideas… I want stronger law and order, masses of individual freedom, and to strip away lots of rules and regulations. I’ve never understood why we don’t try and excite people more about what we can do outside of the EU. We’re always saying how evil the EU is, why not talk about the positives we can do outside of it?”

Etheridge’s ideas don’t exactly chime with the new direction of the party but it does show he’s thinking more about a post-Brexit future. So will the party re-brand? No, say almost all senior figures, although Suzanne Evans does concede she’s not a fan of the colour yellow. “We’ll still be the Independence Party, we’ve got independent thinking!” she said. Even Nick Clegg concedes that there is a gap in the market for a party, in his words, “for those who don’t like the modern world”. But if the Conservatives really do deliver on Brexit, in a way that UKIP voters can support, how will the likes of Evans and O’Flynn answer the charge that they’re in the wrong party?

In contrast, a Tory failure over Brexit would be a lifeline. In the recent White Paper the Government hinted that Britain’s Exclusive Economic Zone (the 200-mile limit of Britain’s fishing waters) could be bartered away as part of a deal. After several meetings with the Government, Fishing for Leave, the campaign group that sparred with Bob Geldof on the Thames during the referendum campaign, are deeply sceptical that the Government will reclaim British fishing waters. If that’s right, UKIP would have a good chance to exploit what might be characterised as a ‘soft’ Brexit and any efforts would likely be spearheaded by accusations of a betrayal of Britain’s fishing industry.

Right now the best indicator for continued success is what happens in Stoke on Thursday. Paul Nuttall is standing in a constituency that voted 70 per cent for Leave against a Labour candidate who thinks Brexit is a “massive pile of s***”. If the UKIP party leader can’t win there, what hopes could they have of winning anywhere?