The first day of UKIP’s conference has been an eventful one. Here are some thoughts on what’s happened and what it means:
- Nigel has left the leadership (for real)… After his various previous departures, it seems the man who has come to embody UKIP has finally, actually, genuinely departed from the top job. Farage’s farewell speech was an interesting one. It would have been understandable if he’d reserved it purely for another celebration of the referendum result, but as well as that it was partly a re-run of some of his favourite jokes, part;y a last blast at all those who said he was wasting his time and ultimately a rather touching goodbye. After 25 years of finishing speeches with a roar, he closed his last with a quiet, slightly teary, “thank you”.
- …but he hasn’t left the scene completely. He’ll continue, he said, as leader of the EFDD group in the European Parliament, which he will use as the base for a tour of EU countries to try to rally support for others to leave. He also pledged to provide support and advice to his successor. Notably, he didn’t take the opportunity to announce that he’d be heading up a “Momentum of the right”, as some had anticipated. But it’s clear he will still be a major figure in UKIP for the foreseeable future – and if a crisis called for someone to save the day, who knows…
- Diane James triumphed in the leadership election. As expected, the MEP for the South East won with 46 per cent of the vote. It was a clear victory, if not the overwhelming one some had expected – Lisa Duffy, often derided by James supporters as a candidate of “the plotters” chalked up a respectable 25 per cent.
- Her debut speech was a missed opportunity. No-one expects her oratory to be up to Farage’s standard, and her delivery will no doubt improve with practice, but the content of her speech let her down. New leaders have a small window of opportunity to break through and define themselves to voters. Instead of offering an eye-catching policy, or a headline-making comment, James’s speech was strangely unfocused. UKIP was a winning machine, she declared, before promising she would turn UKIP into a winning machine. UKIP had won the referendum alone, and there were 17.4 million people who support the party’s views, she announced, without explaining why they secured less than a quarter of that many votes in 2015. Theresa May was stealing UKIP’s policies, she charged, without explaining what she intended to do to avoid the obvious threat that presents to her party. It wasn’t a bad speech, but for it was a missed opportunity to say something memorable and meaningful about herself to the many voters who don’t know anything about her.
- A purge seems to be on the way. James supports abolishing the UKIP NEC – a campaign that took off among Farage loyalists after Woolfe’s exclusion from the leadership race – and has previously warned those who oppose that change: “I suggest you find your P45 when it’s sent to you and I suggest you start looking for a new career, because we don’t want you in UKIP”. That would involve purging some pretty senior figures in the party at minimum. It wouldn’t be UKIP’s first purge, far from it, but it would be a test of the new leader’s authority. Ominously for Neil Hamilton, her first act in the job has been to ditch him from the speaking schedule for the second day of the conference, so she isn’t wasting any time.
- Arron Banks will be fairly pleased, at least for the time being. He didn’t get Woolfe, his first choice, but UKIP’s main donor did at least get the satisfaction of seeing his second preference elected as leader – which is lucky, as he had implied he’d head off with his new “People’s Movement” if the members didn’t vote as he hoped. That doesn’t mean the risk for James has passed – as the man footing much of the bill, Banks will likely expect her to follow his line on what the party thinks and how it works. If she doesn’t agree, or feels that impinges on her status as leader, things could get messy. In the meantime, he is going to build his Momentum-inspired organisation anyway, either as a hobby or a threat to James, depending on your view of his motives.
- UKIP’s future direction remains unclear. It wouldn’t have been unreasonable to expect a new leader in a new political environment to give some sense of UKIP’s new direction, but we heard very little of that today. Railing against May’s support for grammar schools as an unfair theft of the People’s Army’s uniform pleased the room, but it isn’t a plan to avoid being squeezed out by such tactics. Implying that the Government would betray Brexit could be slightly more fertile ground, but only slightly – UKIP cannot afford to retreat to the role of pressure group or watchdog if it wants to survive the abolition of the MEPs, a major source of its infrastructure and income. James’s views remain relatively unknown.
- In particular, there was no real pitch to the North or Labour voters. If James really wanted to make the most of today, she would have addressed her speech not to the UKIP faithful in the conference hall but to disgruntled traditional Labour voters around the country. Given the recent referendum, and Corbyn’s ongoing car crash, they clearly offer the greatest potential for UKIP to grow its vote. There are already some doubts about whether James is the best person to appeal to them – Woolfe notably delivered a speech this afternoon on how to win working class votes – so it was odd that she didn’t make the effort to make the topic her own. In her press conference following the speech she said that she intends to appoint twin chiefs of staff, one for the south and one for the north, but that wider policy announcements will take place in her first 100 days.
- The People’s Army is in danger of complacency. UKIP had good cause to celebrate today – its great dream has come to pass. But some of the comments from the platform were remarkably complacent. Speakers including Farage and James talked as though it was they and they alone who had won the referendum, dismissing and denouncing Vote Leave. It may be a comforting fallacy but it is also a dangerous one. If UKIP hopes to gain ground electorally, then it will need to confront the fact that its ground game is weak in a lot of areas and it routinely fails to target its efforts. Many Tory Leave campaigners were shocked to find their UKIP counterparts were obsessed with high-visibility activities like street stalls but unwilling to take part in the canvassing and GOTV work required to ensure victory. James could learn from the experience and challenge her troops to up their game – but telling them that they won the referendum all by themselves will have the opposite effect.