UKIP in crisis: why the party falls apart after every triumph

Aflame with controversy. starsandspirals/Flickr, CC BY-SA

UKIP isn’t a party of great traditions, but one of its more prominent features has been a habit of falling into bitter in-fighting straight after a triumph. It happened with Robert Kilroy-Silk in 2004, and with Godfrey Bloom in 2013. And now, it seems to be happening again.

True to his word, Nigel Farage offered his resignation last Friday, after failing to win his seat in Thanet South. Although Farage undercut this somewhat by announcing that he would consider standing again in the autumn, his resignation suggested a plan that left options open for everyone.

Monday saw that plan collapse. The party’s National Executive – with Farage in attendance – eventually decided to reject his resignation. Farage then withdrew it, saying he would stay on in light of “overwhelming evidence” that members wanted him to continue as leader.

More likely, it reflected a party that was facing a very unexpected election outcome. While the 3.8 million votes in the recent election were a signal of huge progress, the party’s failure to get more than a single MP was a body-blow. That the MP was Douglas Carswell – a man with a strong local profile and a debatable relationship with UKIP – only made matters worse. This is what led to the on-the-fly rejigging.

Then there is the matter of the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. With each day, that referendum has moved forward, as the Tories try to get it done and dusted as quickly as possible: with treaty reform increasingly off the table, a May 2016 vote may yet be an option.

Full circle

The NEC’s decision reflected both these concerns, and the assumption that a grateful party would roll with it all. But this failed to take account of the strength of feeling in some quarters. First, Carswell made it clear that he would be taking a strong line on the party’s access to the considerable amounts of short money – a yearly payment to help parties in opposition meet their costs. Tellingly, this has not yet been resolved, largely because Carswell holds the whip hand – if he leaves UKIP, then the party gets nothing.

Then Patrick O’Flynn – election campaign coordinator and one of the prominent faces of the party – presented a curious critique of Farage mid-week, accusing his aides of turning him into a remote and unsympathetic figure, and building a “personality cult”. Even if it was the aides’ fault, the media reported it as a challenge against Farage himself – a position which O’Flynn did little to dispel.

This gave an opportunity for others to question whether Farage was the right person to lead, or to whether he at least needed to go through a formal re-election. This included various senior figures, as well as Stuart Wheeler, one of the biggest party donors and a man never afraid to express his views.

In control? Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA

But now, with many more people coming forward to support Farage, and the resignation or expulsion of the aides, matters seem to have come full circle. Things are back to where they were at the start of the week: Farage in control, with mutterings on the side.

What’s the damage?

All of this does not reflect well on the party. In particular, it demonstrates the costs of having a party built around an individual. Farage has acquired an almost totemic value to UKIP, and one can imagine that anxiety that his departure might have provoked in the NEC, especially with an EU referendum around the corner. That there wasn’t any obvious successor to step into his shoes is another consequence of this: Farage has continually marginalised anyone who looks to challenge his position over the years, leaving many with grudges to bear.

Likewise, the general shabbiness of the dealings – which have been largely behind closed doors, with various off-the-record briefings to the media – looks an awful lot like party politics as usual. For a party that has sold itself so successfully as being a challenge to the political class, that might be a very substantial problem. Farage comes out of this looking more venal in his pursuit of power than before, however much he might laugh it off. And in the absence of other strong public faces, damage to Farage means damage to the party as a whole.

But Farage is tainted within the party too. The coalition that he has built up over the past decade was always a fragile one, with distinctive currents of conservatism, libertarianism and “Red UKIP” left-wingers jostling against each other. Even if more heads roll – as they probably have to – then the scope to balance those factions will shrink further. Being leader because people can’t see who would be better is not a strong position to hold, and Farage will have to work hard during the summer to fend off any further challenges.