The resignation of Steven Woolfe is a body blow to UKIP. The farcical leadership race from which he was banned, which began with a remarkably uninspiring selection of candidates and ended with a new leader who refused to talk about policy then resigned after 18 days, was just a foretaste of life without the People’s Army’s great hope for the future.
As I’ve written before, while Farage’s leadership took his party to previously unimagined heights, the downside was that to secure his grip on power he spent years pursuing a policy of snuffing out potential threats to his position. That meant that rising stars who showed potential were either enlisted as core loyalists in Team Farage or, if they refused or weren’t deemed suitable, they were fought and eventually driven out. The process of elimination by rule book will be familiar to those who followed the case of Suzanne Evans, but she was far from the first to suffer it.
The effect was predictable – while UKIP’s frontman did a great job lifting his party to 15 per cent, he departed with few potential successors who might have been able to lift it any further.
Woolfe was the leading potential next leader. His background placed him well to target the disillusioned Labour voters who are UKIP’s logical next target market, but just as importantly he is an extremely able communicator and campaigner. Unlike some of the others seeking the leadership he isn’t prone to conspiracy theory, wild alarmism or incoherence, which is an undoubted advantage.
Losing such a promising frontrunner hurts – and that pain is redoubled when one considers that the queue behind him is extremely short. Last time round, he was replaced by Diane James, who evidently wasn’t up to the job but was still the most viable of the bunch.
In this new leadership race, which may now drag on until after Christmas, the pickings are slim, and further constrained by the party’s vicious infighting.
Paul Nuttall has strong northern and working class credentials, and is also a seasoned media performer, but has reportedly parted ways with Farage and Arron Banks. Without their political and financial backing it is hard to see how his leadership could be tenable.
Suzanne Evans, whose suspension from the party has now expired, is pretty good on TV but is arguably too southern to perform the pivot to target ex-Labour voters and, more terminally, is loathed by the Faragistes, who see her as some sort of outrider for a Tory fifth column.
Peter Whittle, a Member of the London Assembly, is both smart and clever, but is a Londoner through and through, and is yet to show that he has the ability to break into Labour’s northern heartlands.
The others in the field are variously either ill-equipped for the job (some were described by Whittle as “pond life” recently) or flirting with positions that would confirm voters’ worst suspicions about their party – or both. That doesn’t necessarily rule them out from possibly winning, but it does mean each represents a dead end for their party.
I wrote recently for the Telegraph that:
‘UKIP might have a chance of survival if it acts swiftly to redefine itself under an effective new leader, and pivots to target ex-Labour voters in the North. But they have wasted precious time on a dull leadership race, the absurdity of Diane James’ 18-day reign and the farce of Steven Woolfe’s alleged beating this week. Now they must wait until November to get a new leader, while May advances on their position and many of their voters and members look elsewhere for a political future.’
Each of those issues has since got worse. It could now be six months from Farage’s resignation before the leadership contest concludes, and the only viable candidate who could command the backing of Farage and Banks has now left the party entirely. Meanwhile, the drip drip drip of defections from UKIP to the Conservatives continues, while many more members are apparently simply not renewing their subs. While that goes on, the window of opportunity for them to make a direct pitch to the millions of Labour Leavers who find Corbynism unattractive is at risk of passing them by.
This presents a major opportunity for Theresa May. First and foremost she must ensure that the process of leaving the EU stays on course and on time, but as long as she fulfils that prerequisite she could make hay while UKIP squabbles. Her message, centred on “working people”, seems well-suited to start winning over some of those former Labourites, and she has already done quite a lot to attract ex-UKIPers.
The ideal coup, of course, would be to illustrate that process by winning over Woolfe himself. We know that he has been in talks with Patrick McLoughlin and David Davis to defect – indeed, the revelation that he had done so apparently led to the ugly events in Strasbourg. He has publicly acknowledged that the temptation is there:
“I have been enthused by the start to Theresa May’s premiership. Her support of new grammar schools, her words on social mobility and the growing evidence that she is committed to a clean Brexit prompted me, as it did many of my friends and colleagues, to wonder whether our future was within her new Conservative Party.”
Hopefully those talks will now reopen. It wouldn’t just be an illustration of May’s advance into UKIP territory; signing up Woolfe as a Conservative would be of genuine benefit to the Conservative Party. He is talented and likeable person and was an accomplished City lawyer before entering politics. Philosophically, he sits firmly in a conservative tradition, and in policy terms he fought long battles inside UKIP for positions on economics and immigration that most Conservatives would, I suspect, share.
In a world in which the Conservative Party had done its job better over the last 25 years, building a wider conservative coalition and handling Eurosceptics more reasonably, Woolfe would probably have become a Conservative MP rather than a UKIP MEP. His departure from the People’s Army might offer a chance to set that right.