Nadhim Zahawi is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee and MP for Stratford On Avon.
Since last June’s referendum, there has been a lot of discussion about what the next steps will be for the United Kingdom Independence Party. After all, the singular aim of that party has been achieved: The United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union. Where would the “Peoples’ Army” march to next?
Some decided that the logical next step of the party would be to hold the Government’s feet to the fire on Brexit; to make sure it really happens, to make sure the will of the people is enacted. There is a rather conspiracy theorist wing of that party, that blindly hates all politicians except their own (especially those that have been MEPs since 1999). However, there has been nothing for a humble, evil establishment hating, new world order fearing, conspiracy theorist to cling on to.
The Conservatives, despite disagreeing over how the people of Britain should vote, and despite choosing a previously Remain advocating Prime Minister, have been competently and quickly laying the groundwork for exit negotiations and preparing our country for a global future. Quite simply we’ve just been getting on with it, regardless of the headline-grabbing, attention-seeking, very merry band of Kippers. Whether individual Conservatives campaigned for a Leave vote before the referendum or not, the party is united in our desire to enact that result, now it has been delivered. UKIP have been left entirely irrelevant, and they clearly hate it.
But there was another grand plan to try and create a situation where UKIP mattered. The idea was to build on their supposed support during the referendum, and their raft of second places in the 2015 General Election, to supplant Labour as the default option for the people of the North and the Midlands. The thinking was that these voters have become disillusioned by the current state of the Labour Party and its leadership. That they could no longer bring themselves to vote for the party of open door immigration, a party that looks down upon normal patriotism, a party that observes patriotism and a desire to control immigration and immediately shouts racism. And a party that still waits expectantly for their votes to roll in on election day.
So in the Stoke by-election, UKIP threw everything they had at the seat. They even drafted in their new leader, the man apparently selected to cut through with exactly these voters. Excited talk about a UKIP victory was regularly heard. But instead, Paul Nuttall scraped second, barely increased UKIPs shared of the vote from 2015 and finished only 79 votes ahead of the Conservative candidate, who performed well above expectations.
The reason for this failure is not because the analysis was wrong or because these disillusioned voters aren’t there. UKIP have been spectacularly unsuccessful in harnessing this change of mood amongst many Labour supporters in those regions because they are an unpopular party and an unattractive brand. They always have been, and Brexit has changed nothing.
UKIP and its donors such as Arron Banks have been deluding themselves that the EU referendum result was their victory. This misconception has been bolstered by those in the media who misunderstand and fear the result. They have a stereotype in their mind of a Leave voter, and that stereotype fits UKIP. They therefore turn to that party for explanation, accept the reasoning that it puts forward, and allow the perception of a UKIP-led victory to flourish.
Indeed, this is often the reason Remain voters dislike the result; they fear UKIPs influence. Luckily, this isn’t there.
Since the turn of the year, UKIP has been polling between six per cent and 15 per cent, and often poll something close to their 2015 result of 13 per cent. They currently have only one Member of Parliament. Even one MP seems to be too many for the party, as they attempt kick him out – primarily (and hilariously) because he’s tried to push the party in a less unpopular direction since he joined, and because he joined Vote Leave, the group that actually did run the Brexit campaign.
Kippers like to point to their four million votes in the 2015 election but, in the referendum, 17.4 million people and 52 per cent of voters chose to leave. If the average Leave voter thought that UKIP spoke for them, then the party would be doing much better than its current polling. If Leave won because of the messaging and representatives of UKIP, they would now be soaring ahead. The alternative fact of implying that Leave voters are somehow analogous to UKIP voters should have finally been killed in Stoke.
Millions of normal Leave voters clearly want nothing to do with UKIP, so where will they go? Will Labour voters stay with their party, despite a failing leadership and no clear position on Brexit?
I believe the answer to this question is visible in the result of the other by-election result in Copeland. Away from the media circus surrounding UKIP in Stoke, the Conservatives and our new Member of Parliament, Trudy Harrison were quietly overturning a 2,500-vote majority and creating a 2,000-vote majority of our own, ending 80 years of Labour representation.
Since the 2015 general election, and since the 2016 referendum, the Labour vote has collapsed, and the Conservative vote has grown. Meanwhile UKIP, has stayed roughly the same. There is huge disillusionment with Labour amongst ordinary people in the North and the Midlands, but they’re not interested in swapping to UKIP.
It appears they much prefer what the current Conservative Government are offering. But we cannot be complacent, we need to show these voters that they’re right, we need to keep working to make them welcome, and we need to convince even more. But at the same time, it would also be nice to hear an end to the myths of UKIP’s role in Brexit.