In the aftermath of the 2015 general election, it looked for a moment as if UKIP were ready to effect a crucial changing of the guard.
Like the SNP after their defeat in the independence referendum the previous year, it looked like the People’s Army could shift its position to capitalise on some very promising advances in their position, disguised by a disappointing headline result.
Instead we had the shambles that was Nigel Farage’s ‘unresignation’, followed by a brutal reassertion of his internal authority. I wrote in autumn last year that his iron grip on the party was “strangling it”.
But perhaps Farage knew something I didn’t, because the party’s response to his actual, for-real resignation has been, if possible, even worse.
Stephen Woolfe, the purported front-runner and the candidate seen as most likely to be able to capitalise on Labour’s weak working-class flank after the Brexit vote, has been excluded from the ballot. So have other viable potential leaders like Suzanne Evans, who has now lent her backing to Lisa Duffy, a candidate with no national profile whatsoever.
In response, Woolfe’s allies and Arron Banks, the party’s major donor, look like they have enough support to call an Emergency General Meeting, where Guido reports that they’ll try and abolish the party’s National Executive Committee. If they fail, a split might be on the cards.
According to Matthew Goodwin, a scholar of UKIP, a big part of the Faragistes motivation is neutralising what they see as an ex-Conservative bloc formed by Evans, Douglas Carswell (their only MP), and Neil Hamilton (their leader in the Welsh Assembly).
But whatever the causes of the chaos, it couldn’t be more poorly timed. Goodwin writes:
“The chaos is preventing Ukip from exploiting fully the disarray in the Labour Party, with anxieties high among the 52 per cent who voted Leave over a diluted deal on Brexit and free movement. The party is unable to focus on local elections in the spring of 2017 that will be held across a swathe of Labour territory in Wales and Conservative county councils in Ukip-friendly areas like Kent and Buckingham.”
Not only is UKIP squandering an opportunity to wound Labour, it is neglecting its defences at a time when Theresa May’s Conservatives, which seem both to take Brexit and working-class concerns about the economy seriously, has the opportunity to “destroy” it.
It may be that the sort of control we’re used to seeing in the (successful) nationalist parties like UKIP and the SNP is a necessary ingredient of their success.
After all, each brings together members who often agree on precious little beyond the destruction of whichever union the party is aimed at. The lockstep conformism of the Scottish Nationalists has plenty of downsides, but you can see why it would seem preferable to UKIP’s circus.
On the other hand, one key thing holding the SNP together is that their ultimate goal – the breakup of the UK – remains un-attained. They have not yet been forced, as UKIP have, to carve out a new role for themselves.
Regardless, unless the People’s Army can get a grip it may well be that the EU referendum does what the Scottish one did not, and kills off the party ultimately responsible for it.