The old joke in UKIP circles is that there is one rule of the party’s perennial bouts of in-fighting: Nigel always wins.
It was ever thus. Ask Alan Sked (if you want to hear the same denunciation he issues biannually), or Kilroy-Silk, or any of the dozens of former “senior UKIPers” who have fallen, tattered and bruised, in the wake of the People’s Army’s undisputed Generalissimo over the years. In 20-odd years of UKIP, there’s been so much internal knifing that their HQ may as well install blood-coloured carpets just to keep down cleaning costs.
Farage’s dominance rested on a number of factors: his status as his party’s pre-eminent star, his charm, his coterie of utterly dedicated supporters, his ruthlessness and, time and again, his ability to deploy the UKIP rulebook to devastating (if often controversial) effect.
The man himself has stepped down, but the Faragistes show no sign of abandoning his approach. The suspension of Suzanne Evans was just in time to prevent her running for the London Assembly, but has also proved useful to ban her from standing in the leadership contest.
Quite why this should be desirable if, as her opponents claim, she is loathed by the membership is unclear – even Arron Banks now wants to let her stand, on the basis that “she would be crushed”. That would probably be a more sustainable solution to her ongoing status as a thorn in the side of the party’s dominant faction, but it simply isn’t the way things have been done in UKIP historically. If the rulebook can be used to close someone out entirely, without all the hassle of an open contest, that’s what they’ll choose.
Farage was also routinely helped by the blunders of his opponents. Sked was unworldly, and allowed his academic mindset to obscure questions of practical politics. Kilroy-Silk weakened his position by declaring that UKIP wanted to “kill” the Conservative Party – something Farage would happily say in modern times, but which back then caused a lot of disquiet in the grassroots.
While his party’s success has made it harder to dislodge his enemies entirely – Neil Hamilton has secured himself in the Welsh Assembly, and Carswell provided a Westminster refuge for Evans – it seems the familiar story still holds true. This morning’s press conference, called by Evans, was billed as a “significant statement”. Speculation ran rife. Would she be declaring her candidacy, having found some way round the suspension? Might she defect back to the Conservatives?
In fact, it was rather less exciting. Evans said she had “given up hope” of being allowed to stand for the leadership, said she would be sticking with the party and threw her support behind Lisa Duffy.
Lisa who? Well, quite. Duffy is a councillor, chief of staff to Patrick O’Flynn and the former head of UKIP’s by-election campaigns. I haven’t met her, and from what I hear she is capable and nice, but she isn’t a heavyweight contender in the race to find a successor to the defining personality of the party.
In short, while Farage has stepped down, his team continue his dominance. Not only has Evans been excluded from the leadership race, through a classic rulebook manoeuvre, but she has made an error by backing a candidate who is unlikely to trouble Steven Woolfe, the odds-on favourite.
It may not always be that way, of course. Farage’s ruthlessness and occasional brutality were softened by his charm and skill – and various of his followers lack the latter redeeming qualities. Nor are some of those who now find themselves in charge of UKIP as capable in a faction fight as he was. Plus, if he does win, Woolfe is neither Farage reborn nor a simple puppet – he has a somewhat different set of principles, and a very different manner. If gets the room to be his own man, he could yet build a powerbase that allows him to define his party for himself. Though those who would lose out in such a circumstance will presumably be keen to prevent that happening.