Yet another row has erupted—this time between Farage and Carswellby Tom Quinn / March 3, 2017 / Leave a comment
Brexit has not been kind to UKIP. Since Britain voted to leave the EU in June last year, the party that helped to bring about the referendum has suffered a nervous breakdown. Over recent days yet more squabbling has taken place, with Nigel Farage and Douglas Carswell engaging in a very public feud.
Shortly after the referendum result the party’s then leader, Nigel Farage, tendered his resignation, his work having been done, and MEP Diane James won the contest to succeed him. She lasted just 18 days before resigning because of a lack of authority among senior colleagues, and Farage returned temporarily to hold the fort. There quickly followed an altercation between two UKIP MEPs, Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem, with Woolfe, a candidate to replace James, ending up in hospital. Eventually, another MEP, Paul Nuttall, convincingly won UKIP’s second leadership election of 2016.
After being chosen as UKIP’s parliamentary candidate for the Stoke Central by-election, Nuttall was expected to perform well and perhaps take a seat from Labour in the type of working-class Leave-supporting constituency that he says the party should target. Instead, his campaign was derailed by media coverage that depicted him as a Walter Mitty-type character. Nuttall acknowledged that, despite suggestions to the contrary, he had not lost close friends in the Hillsborough disaster. He also said past statements on websites—linked to him—that he held a PhD and was once on Tranmere Rovers’ books as a professional footballer were nothing to do with him. His credibility was left in tatters and it would be no surprise to see UKIP soon searching for its fourth leader in less than a year.
And now, just when it looked as though UKIP had hit rock-bottom, a row has erupted involving Farage and Carswell—the party’s only MP. In an article for the Daily Telegraph, Farage accused Carswell or fomenting division and called for him to leave UKIP. There followed claims that Farage’s chances of a knighthood had been frustrated by Carswell. Leaked email exchanges between Carswell and the UKIP peer (and another former leader), Lord Malcolm Pearson, appeared to show Carswell mocking Farage’s hopes of a gong. UKIP’s biggest donor, Arron Banks, reportedly accused Carswell of being “a green-eyed jealous monster when it comes to Nigel.”
The relationship between Farage and Carswell has never been smooth, ever since Carswell defected from the Conservatives to join UKIP in 2014, partly over his opposition to EU membership. He resigned his seat and fought a by-election in his Clacton constituency, which he won convincingly, and retained his seat in the general election significantly less convincingly. However, with Britain’s vote to leave the EU last year, there appear to be few remaining differences between Carswell and his former Tory colleagues and there has been speculation that he could return to his old party.
Part of the Carswell-Farage animosity appears personal in origin. Carswell is a maverick who does things his own way. Farage is the man who helped UKIP achieve its founding goal of taking Britain out of the EU. Since the referendum, he has visibly outgrown his party. He launched himself on to the international stage with his intervention in support of Donald Trump during the US election and has since taken to posting pictures of his meetings with the new president.
There is nothing unusual about this turn of events. Small parties such as UKIP often find themselves dependent on big personalities to secure media attention. But dependence may become over-dependence and it is not unusual for radical parties to implode once their figurehead has gone—the Pim Fortuyn List party in the Netherlands provides a good example. Alternatively, charismatic figures can have the effect of making parties fractious. Indeed, UKIP has been here before. In 2004, the television personality Robert Kilroy-Silk sought to take control of the leadership before being fought off. The legacy of that power struggle was to make UKIP look divided and amateurish. The same thing is happening today: Banks has complained that UKIP is being “run like a jumble sale” and demanded that he be made chairman so that he could force the party to get its act together.
Compounding these personality differences is a strategic dilemma. UKIP faces questions over its role in the post-Brexit world. What is the function of a party that was set up to secure Britain’s departure from the EU now that goal has been achieved? The answer that UKIP arrived at was that it should target working-class Labour seats and campaign on the issue of immigration. That is a position that Carswell in particular looks uncomfortable with. In contrast, Farage has argued that UKIP lost in Stoke because it did not campaign hard enough on immigration.
A reorientation by UKIP towards a Labour-facing strategy makes sense. UKIP is losing the ex-Conservative voters it won in 2015 back to the Tories as the prime minister, Theresa May, looks increasingly prepared to settle for a hard Brexit after Article 50 has been triggered. Meanwhile, Labour under Jeremy Corbyn is leaking votes and looking highly vulnerable. Targeting Labour would make UKIP resemble other European radical-right parties, which focus on immigration and multiculturalism, appealing to working-class voters on identity rather than economics.
The Stoke Central by-election had offered the perfect opportunity to put this strategy into motion. After his defeat, Nuttall sought to dismiss Stoke as being only 72nd on UKIP’s target list—although curiously, it is number eight in a ranking by marginality of the 120 seats in which UKIP came second in the 2015 general election (and which presumably provide its best hope of electoral success). But UKIP might have won Stoke with a more credible candidate. Victory would have provided a major breakthrough and offered a basis for further success. Such boosts are vital because most of the seats in which UKIP finished second in 2015 have large Labour or Conservative majorities: only 11 have majorities below 20 per cent (including Stoke Central) and only three have majorities of 10 per cent or less. The Liberal Democrats’ past electoral successes were based on convincing voters that a vote for the party was not a wasted vote, and in the areas where they managed to persuade voters of that case, they did it through success in by-elections, council elections and neighbouring constituencies (the so-called “contagion” effect).
Such opportunities must be grasped by small parties but that requires clear leadership, internal discipline and grassroots organisation. UKIP is lacking all of these. Many believe it can be saved only by the return of Farage. But having gone global and acquired the status of a political superstar (if not yet a matching knighthood), it’s hard to see what Farage would have to gain from returning to the hard slog of leading a minor party.
At the moment, UKIP’s poll ratings have not been badly damaged. But that may reflect Labour’s unpopularity and the limited extent of the Liberal Democrats’ post-coalition rebuilding. Neither party’s weakness is guaranteed to continue. If Corbyn steps down, Labour under new leadership could reclaim lost support. The triggering of Article 50 will intensify debates about Brexit and could boost the Liberal Democrats. They could also reclaim their status as the principal vehicle for protest voters, many of whom migrated to UKIP when the Lib Dems were in government. UKIP’s position is more precarious than the polls suggest. It must find leadership, unity and organisation if it is to re-establish itself. If it doesn’t, it could become the party that was broken by Brexit.