This weekend’s UKIP party conference – its 20th – was phenomenal and fantastic. Obviously, I’m using those words in their original senses of “it happened” and “it resembled something from a child’s story”.
This was pretty much the tale from Westminster Hall: nasty dragons (the EU, foreigners, “politicians”, and so on) attack the fair castle of Albion, to be chased away by brave Sir Nigel, only for the court jester – Godders the clown – to stumble into view and make everyone forget about the rest. Your kids would raise an eyebrow at such a tale, and with reason.
The intention had been that this was to be a coming-out of sorts for the party, following a year of strong performances in both elections and polls, not to mention vaguely creditable claims to have shifted the debate on the EU and on migration.
The keystones of this were to be threefold: Nigel Farage’s keynote would pull in the media (obviously with the attendant interviews), while Paul Nuttall’s speech just beforehand would make a play for Labour voters, a key gambit in not getting painted into the “Tories with a proper European policy” corner. The third part was that rarest of things: a policy initiative. Unfortunately, that policy was a sovereign wealth fund to be paid for by fracking, something that sounded more like a conversation in a pub (“let’s stick together two things that are in the news”) rather than sound economics. Suffice to say that Gerard Batten’s announcement did not set the business pages alight.
The event was as big as it had even been, even if the list of exhibitors did not represent the full range of British society and industry. As one observer who attended conceded to me, there was the usual mix of boosterism and smug pomposity, and in that sense what anyone else thought didn’t really matter.
Of course, none of this really matter once Godfrey Bloom entered the picture.
Bloom is a rather particular figure in UKIP’s story. A successful businessman and an archetypal Yorkshireman, he has a very positive reputation among the party structure, giving both time and resource to support its activities. At the time of his now infamous “bongo bongo land” comments earlier in the summer, the mood had been one of “silly old Godders, off he goes again; he is a one”. That apology was barely one and the matter was pushed to one side with much haste.
This time was different. Rising to the bait of Channel 4’s Michael Crick – brandishing a copy of the conference brochure, with its all-white faces peering out – and bopping him on the head with it would have been fine. However Bloom then chose to attend and address a side event on women in UKIP, a move that is akin to asking Stalin to pop into a workshop on the joys of free-market capitalism.
Bloom’s comments – and even more his half-hearted attempt to wriggle out of them – prove too much of a gift for the media. Any thought that the story might be about UKIP “growing up” went out of the window.
Bloom and Farage have a long history and the latter has done much to excuse the former’s behaviour, using it as a way to show that he doesn’t bow to “political correctness”. But Farage is also a man who makes it very clear that he leads the party and that he is the face of the party. To be upstaged in such a manner and on such an occasion, when UKIP really does need to be more than just a bit of fun, seems to have pushed Farage to press for the removal of the whip.
Actually, that’s not the end of it. The final statement from the party was that Bloom’s suspension was provisional, until a disciplinary hearing in a few weeks’ time. Assuming that the world’s media isn’t going to be hanging on to this story with baited breath, it is no shock that Godders remains up on the much-criticised list of candidates for the European elections that is being finalised by Farage himself.
And so the UKIP funfair rolls on. Another stumble in the blocks, another chance to bash the establishment and the media for failing to focus on “the issues”, another demonstration of the value the party lays on good organisation and on treating 51% of the electorate with any respect. With or without Godders on board, the next two years represent a critical phase for UKIP and it will have to be less of an anti-party if it is to make the leap.