All political parties are run by a mixture of public and private figures. Understanding who they are, what they do and how they interact is important to assessing a party’s actions. It struck me as a good time to provide a guide to the people who play that role at the top of UKIP.
For any political party, there is inevitably some blurring of lines between the team around its leader and the team running the party itself. The Prime Minister’s staff and the staff of CCHQ are branches of the same organisation, for example. This tendency is even more exaggerated in UKIP – just as Farage dominates his party to an extraordinary extent, the distinctions between the man and the machine at the top of UKIP are even less clear than they are for most parties. One of their senior press officers, Alexandra Phillips, describes her job on LinkedIn as “Head of Media for Nigel Farage and party” – the lack of a distinction between the two, and the priorities suggested by the order in which she chose to list them, is far from unique among her colleagues.
Therefore, this snapshot guide to the key officials at the top of UKIP is a combination of their central party operation and Nigel Farage’s personal staff – the people who keep the party running, who enact what their leader wants and, if past patterns continue, the people who often go on to top MEP lists and secure the nominations for target seats.
The picture is further complicated by the way in which UKIP carefully structures its use of EU funding to effectively staff its UK operation – a web of rules which they must negotiate carefully. As a result, some of their paid personnel are employed by the party, some by individual MEPs or MPs and still others by the EFDD, UKIP’s group in the European Parliament (a source of large sums of money, hence the dubious deal Farage struck with a Polish MEP in order to keep it going). The name on the payslip may vary, but they are in effect all members of one organisation.
So here they are – the officials, advisers, strategists, donors and communicators who are set to decide what UKIP says and does over the course of the General Election:
Director of Communications: Paul ‘Gobby’ Lambert. A near-legendary figure in Westminster media, where he gained his nickname after reliably shouting “Are you going to resign, minister?” under all conditions and over remarkably long distances. Lambert was a big hire for the insurgency in December, filling a crucial vacancy after they had searched high and low for possible candidates. Since leaving the BBC for UKIP he has kept a low public profile, not doing broadcast interviews or tweeting anything beyond the occasional link to a news article. After doorstepping plenty of politicians in his years as a journalist, he appears to be living by the Alastair Campbell maxim that the comms guy should never become the story.
The ex-Director of Communications: Patrick O’Flynn MEP. The party’s previous big success in poaching from the lobby, O’Flynn left the Daily Express to lead the UKIP commsteam in the run-up to the European elections. Before the move, he was instrumental in persuading the Express to become the first (and so far only) national newspaper to officially back the People’s Army. Now the Economic Spokesman for the party and an MEP for the East of England, his standing hasn’t recovered after came a cropper in September by proposing a “Wag tax” which Farage publicly quashed. However, his public profile, nose for a story and links with the Lobby mean he remains an influential figure.
Farage’s Spokesman: Gawain Towler. The unsung hero of UKIP’s rise to prominence, Towler – who officially works for the EFDD – has been instrumental in establishing Farage’s voice, tone and fame. Unconventional in his love of waistcoats and cravats, any conversation with him is punctuated by phonecalls asking for statements from Nigel on every type of story. Having just passed his tenth anniversary of working for UKIP, Towler has become a rare stable fixture in a party notorious for its bouts of in-fighting. Sufficiently trusted by his leader to give comments in his name, he knows the heart, guts (and skeletons) of the movement.
Farage’s Senior Adviser: Raheem Kassam. A recent hire for UKIP, Kassam previously ran the London outpost of American blog Breitbart. He has worked for a host of think-tanks and blogs in recent years – from The Henry Jackson Society and The TaxPayers’ Alliance to The Commentator. He he left Breitbart after eight months, at which point an anonymous Breitbart article praised his “political nous and campaigning prowess”. His new role is very much advising the leader, rather than the wider party.
Head of Media: Alexandra Phillips. A former television journalist at ITV and the BBC, Phillips jumped the fence into political comms five years ago. Now effectively working for Lambert, she has got herself into hot water in the past through unwise social media comments and thus keeps a somewhat lower profile nowadays.
The campaigner: Chris Bruni-Lowe. Formerly of The People’s Pledge, where he ran constituency referenda on the EU, and Business for Britain, Bruni-Lowe played a key role in UKIP’s two by-election victories last year. As The Times noted, he worked for both Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless before their defections. During the by-election campaigns themselves, he was on the ground helping to run the UKIP machine. This year he is working on the party’s target seats operation.
Party Chairman: Steve Crowther. After a career in marketing and communications, Crowther was brought on board by Farage with the stated aim of professionalising UKIP’s operation and candidate selection. A committed Farage loyalist, he has proved serially useful to his leader – not least in handling matters of internal discipline on which his boss would rather not have to spend his time. While the party’s leader is technically subordinate to its NEC, Crowther’s position effectively allows him to ensure that Farage’s decisions are both first and final.
Deputy Chairman: Neil Hamilton. Readers will already be acquainted with the former MP’s past. Despite an early welcome, it has proved increasingly controversial within his new party, too. Given the role of managing UKIP’s 2014 European election campaign, he was after a time relegated to speaking at local branches around the country – particularly after a falling out with powerful donor Paul Sykes (of whom more later). So far he has been allowed to retain the largely honorific Deputy Chairman title – but I wouldn’t bet on him keeping it for the long run.
Deputy Leader: Paul Nuttall MEP. A campaigner at heart, Nuttall rose from the voluntary party to his current position in a few short years – particularly on the back of building an effective branch structure on Merseyside. One of the team of alternative spokesmen given more media exposure after Farage’s plane crash in 2010, his scouse accent and working class background both make him a useful antidote to popular expectations of a UKIP representative. His attention in the General Election will primarily be on how to woo Labour voters, particularly in the North of England, away from their traditional allegiance.
Treasurer: Hugh Williams. After Stuart Wheeler stepped down as Party Treasurer last year, the decision was taken to divide the role. Williams, Wheeler’s deputy and a chartered accountant, took over the formal functions – he oversees the accounts and serves as the party’s officially registered finance representative with the Electoral Commission.
Treasurer: Andrew Reid. With Williams fulfilling the official and technical elements of Treasurer, his co-Treasurer Reid works at buttering up major donors. This drive has paid off, with sizeable income from City figures which UKIP had previously struggled to reach. A successful lawyer who was previously himself a donor to the Tories, he provides UKIP’s Mayfair offices – which he formerly leant to Boris Johnson’s mayoral campaign.
General Secretary: Roger Bird has not been replaced since he resigned in December despite being cleared of unfounded allegations levelled at him by a former girlfriend. I’m told the party is considering abolishing the role.
Party Secretary: Matthew Richardson. A barrister by trade, former Executive Director of the Young Britons’ Foundation and current Alderman of the City of London, Richardson was reportedly charged by UKIP last year with protecting the party from scandals in the media, allegedly by injunctions if they are thought necessary. He is a close friend and ally of Kassam, with whom he also shares an enthusiasm for American-style attack politics. Reports that he played a major role in the defections of Carswell and Reckless are privately played down by senior figures in the party, though he is a regular sight around Westminster.
The policy wonk
Head of Policy: Suzanne Evans. Given that she only got the job yesterday, perhaps it is best to start with Evans’ predecessor in the role of UKIP’s policy chief, Tim Aker MEP. The former Grassroots Co-Ordinator of the TaxPayers’ Alliance (where his desk faced mine for two years), it was announced 24 hours ago that Aker had found his other roles (as East of England MEP, local councillor and PPC for the target seat of Thurrock) took up too much of his time to also write the manifesto. Privately, there are mutterings that his background was in campaigning rather than policy formulation. Today’s FT quotes an anonymous UKIP official as saying the overdue manifesto is currently “a series of bullet points, not a proper document at all”. If so, his successor has a big task on her hands to finish it in time for the party’s Spring Conference next month. It will be interesting to watch whether the new Head of Policy’s approach or outlook differ noticeably from Aker’s. Prior to taking on the manifesto, Evans was a Deputy Chairman of the party – a title bestowed due to her normally solid media performances (though she has slipped up on one or two notable occasions). She is also the UKIP PPC for Shrewsbury, and defected from the Conservatives while a councillor in Merton.
Paul Sykes: The really big money-man of anti-EU politics has had a sometimes fractious relationship with his party over the last decade. I’ve lost count of the number of times he has been reported as saying he won’t be giving them any more of his hard-earned cash. But the most recent rumours are, I understand, exaggerated – while he is planning to reduce his direct donations to the central UKIP operation as their membership income grows, he will be supporting some chosen candidates and, more substantially, will fund a massive billboard advertising campaign across the country. The potential catch is that the direct Yorkshireman is his own man, and if he is funding adverts then he will choose their content – whether they turn out to be to Farage’s tastes (or perhaps more importantly Carswell’s) remains to be seen.
Stuart Wheeler: The spread-betting millionaire is probably the only person in Britain to have saved two political parties in his time. His £5 million donation to William Hague’s Conservatives allowed the party to bridge its post-1997 crisis, and he has proved instrumental on several occasions in guaranteeing UKIP’s future. He stood down as Treasurer in 2014, but still works to support his party’s efforts in wining and dining potential donors.
Aaron Banks: He hit the headlines as the subject of a somewhat over-hyped press conference in the Autumn (when the lobby travelled across the country expecting a new defection, and instead found themselves presented with a new donor). Insurance entrepreneur and former Tory donor Banks upped his UKIP donation to £1 million when he felt William Hague had insulted him. Interestingly, he is apparently a regular feature in UKIP Head Office, keen to contribute his thoughts on strategy (as well as a key figure in the Carswellite Bright Purple tribe of the party).