There’s been a lot of discussion, inevitably given the possibility of a hung parliament, about the potential impact on Labour, the Conservatives and the Lib Dems of various outcomes of the election. But few have yet looked at UKIP – the general assumption is that they’ll win some seats (perhaps one, perhaps as many as seven), but there’s very little attention paid to how that might alter the dynamics of their party.
Here are a few possible scenarios.
Drastically undershooting expectations – perhaps by only holding one or both of their current two seats, and adding Thanet South - would spark chaos. There would be internal recriminations, at which UKIP’s old guard are extremely practiced, but there would also be an SNP-style howl at the democratic system in general. Just as the 45ers believe they were robbed, rather than losing fair and square, the People’s Army (some of whom at grassroots level genuinely expect UKIP to top 75 seats) would undoubtedly declare such a result an establishment con – a LibLabCon, in fact. At best, expect a renewed debate about proportional representation. At worst, expect full-blown conspiracy theories.
Even if UKIP do relatively well on the night, they could still end up facing a major crisis if Nigel Farage fails to get elected. Lord Ashcroft’s polls for Thanet South have found UKIP and the Conservatives at level pegging, and Farage does have some bitter experience of spending so much time on the national campaign that he falls short in his own constituency race, so it’s not an impossibility.
The UKIP leader has pledged that if that was to happen, he would stand down as party leader. It wouldn’t be the first time, of course – he stood down before the 2010 General Election, but maintained his powerbase behind the scenes. However, this would be different. Having staked so much on the election battle and lost, it would be politically and personally difficult for him to continue. After injury in a plane crash, surgery to address back pain that arose from the same incident and years of extremely hard campaigning, I suspect he’d mean it (and Mrs Farage would, too).
In such a scenario there would be a number of potential leaders - and no doubt several more who would consider themselves potential leaders. But the precise person who would succeed Farage doesn’t matter that much – ultimately, there isn’t anyone as good as him to step into the job. Ironically, Farage himself is one reason for the absence of a purple Nicola Sturgeon – for years he artfully prevented any possible competitors arising.
In the absence of a replacement with his combination of ability, work ethic and image, it’s hard to see the fractious coalition which is the People’s Army holding together. Always prone to in-fighting at the best of times, without the leader who brought them together there to keep the peace it wouldn’t take long for one or more of the tribes to turn on the others.
A good night
While Farage being defeated would be the most melodramatic scenario for UKIP, a great result for the insurgents would be pretty interesting, too. What if they chalked up, say, seven seats? Those they talk most hopefully about include Clacton, Rochester and Strood, South Thanet, Thurrock, Dudley North, Boston and Skegness and Heywood and Middleton. This hypothetical outcome would fit the criteria for a good night for UKIP – retaining their existing MPs, getting Farage into the Commons and winning some more seats on top, including two from Labour in order to bolster their argument about being a national party.
What then? Farage would be hailed as the conquering hero, totally secure in his position. I’d expect him to swiftly draw attention to however many seats UKIP might have come second in, and declare the fight most definitely on for the 2020 General Election.
There would, of course, be a new group of MPs for us all to learn about. In this scenario, in addition to Carswell, Reckless and Farage there would be Tim Aker MP (Thurrock), Bill Etheridge MP (Dudley North), Robin Hunter-Clarke MP (Boston and Skegness) and John Bickley MP (Heywood and Middleton).
First, a bit of trivia – at 22, Hunter-Clarke would be a strong contender for Baby of the House.
More importantly, the sight of Farage on his feet at Prime Minister’s Questions, the attendant power base of staffing and an increased presence near the Westminster studios would all inevitably lend extra weight to the “purple revolution”. But that’s not to say it would all go smoothly – the new Parliamentary Party would contain a range of opinion which could prove interesting to say the least. It’s fair to say that the Carswell’s views on immigration differ starkly from those of Aker. Similarly, John Bickley’s stance on welfare would differ from his more centre right colleagues (as UKIP candidate in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election he invited people to vote UKIP to “protect your benefits).
That would all be interesting and potentially entertaining, but strangely the biggest impact of the General Election on UKIP’s internal politics could take place in Brussels. For a start, if any MEPs (like Farage, Aker and Etheridge) are elected to the Commons, then those Euro candidates who just missed out in 2014 will be bumped up to take their place in the European Parliament. So Donna Edmunds, Phil Henrick and Michael Heaver would become MEPs.
A new leader in Brussels
At the same time, the UKIP group in the European Parliament would face two potentially difficult developments. First, with their leader in Westminster they would no longer be at the centre of their party’s work. Brussels has long been a UKIP stronghold, training ground and essential funding source – and, of course, the stage on which Farage performs (to Herman van Rompuy’s misfortune). Without him, those left behind would be part of a sideshow rather than actors at the main attraction – not necessarily an enjoyable experience for any politician.
Second, they would need to choose a new leader of their group. I’m told that senior members of the party are already gearing up for ructions. Farage has always been the obvious choice, but if he heads to Westminster then he leaves a vacuum behind him in Brussels. Troublingly for UKIP HQ, some factions are already muttering against each other, before the job is even vacant:
- Paul Nuttall is the Deputy Leader of UKIP and a regular media performer, and might seem to be the obvious choice. However, his critics question whether he would be willing to do the day to day slog of keeping a group going.
- Steven Woolfe, a long-time ally of Nuttall’s who has impressed with his economics commentary, is apparently felt to be ambitious to break out from his old mate’s shadow – and therefore viewed with suspicion by some Faragistes.
- Patrick O’Flynn, who enjoyed a strong position when first elected a year ago, was seriously dented by his flirtation with envy taxes in the Autumn. His internal reputation hasn’t recovered from Farage publicly ditching the WAG tax on national television.
- Diane James, the candidate who stunned the Tory campaign machine in Eastleigh, is widely considered to be a strong performer. However, she has never been a favourite of the party leadership despite her success. In practical terms, she recently chose not to stand for parliament due to family commitments, which may similarly apply to this role.
- Louise Bours, the party’s health spokesperson, could never be accused of being shy. “Just dreadful,” is the verdict of one senior UKIPer, and the mention of the idea elicits rolled eyes from others, but none can rule out that she might go for the job nonetheless.
Perhaps, of course, a relatively unremarkable “safe pair of hands” candidate could be settled upon. The problem of that plan is that while most elected politicians are unusual in one way or another, UKIP’s do tend to be even more keen on their personal hobby horses than most. If Farage wanted to find someone competent, acceptable to all wings of his ideologically varied party but also not so ambitious that they might cause trouble, he would have a job on his hands.
As with so many aspects of UKIP’s rise, it’s fascinating to observe. For most of their two decade history, their growing pains are difficult and challenging. Farage has remained the dominant figure of his party for so long because of his ability either to harness those challenges to serve himself or his party, or failing that to keep his head down and ride them out. If UKIP’s elected representation does grow on May 7th, and shift its focus to Westminster, he may find it becomes impossible to control his army as closely as he once could.