UKIP has peaked. This cannot be a statement of fact: we shall only know later whether the peak has been reached. Nor is it based on the minute and expert analysis of polling data: we live in a golden age for such research, with which I am unqualified to compete. It is founded on my gut feeling that UKIP has become in the last six months far more tiresome.
Kippers may retort that this is because UKIP has become far more successful. I suppose that may be part of it: UKIP is more of a threat now than it once was to the Conservatives. To recruit Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless, and win the subsequent by-elections, was a big achievement.
But I think there has also been a change in tone, and perhaps even in substance. UKIP used to be more amusing, more light-hearted, more spontaneous. It was a way of teasing people like David Cameron who were vulnerable to the charge of taking themselves too seriously. It enabled lower-c conservatives to say to him: if you go on ignoring us, we shall play a joke on you which you will find impossible to ignore. The teacher in his gown would realise too late that a bucket of water or worse was descending on his head.
Nigel Farage established himself as the leader with whom it would be most enjoyable to go to the pub. I have even been to the pub with him, not for a prolonged drinking bout, but for two or three pints after interviewing him. He is very good company: quick-witted, full of enthusiasms, ready not to take himself too seriously, prepared to have a go at almost anything, the epitome of a certain kind of traditional Englishman, who is more sensitive than his bumptious exterior would suggest, and is therefore surprisingly good at striking up a rapport with complete strangers. A day or two ago I heard him on the radio, and was impressed again by his command of tone. He was eloquent, and knew exactly where to put the emphasis.
But UKIP is no longer Farage’s outing to the saloon bar. Others have come on board, who are not Merry England types. Some of them don’t drink at all. They are puritans: men (still usually men) of sternly nonconformist temper. So we have Farage the cavalier pretending to get along with Carswell the Cromwellian: a mixture which as Mark Wallace has observed in his Pinning Down Farage series, and in subsequent posts, doesn’t work, for the two approaches are entirely incompatible.
One of the infuriating things about the admirable Carswell is that he seems to think that if only we put the right structures in place, all our problems will be solved. He sounds like a kindly, priggish, unbearably naive utopian. Not for him Alexander Herzen’s great remark that on the whole, modern man has no solutions. Farage must find it unbearable to be yoked to this sanctimonious bore. Am I right to detect that Farage has lost some of his sparkle, his joie de vivre, since Carswell and Reckless came on board with their modern ideas about how to navigate the ship?
A successful party will contain a variety of people, including some who cannot stand each other. But UKIP now faces in acute form the problem the Lib Dems have been finding so troublesome: the conversion from a party of protest, to one which is prepared to tolerate what Winston Churchill called (in his essay on Lord Rosebery, in Great Contemporaries) “the compromises, the accommodations, the inevitable acquiescence in inferior solutions” which are forced upon a leader by the exercise of power.
Is UKIP going to become just another party, run by a gang of politicians who speak the language of idealism while behaving in an altogether more pragmatic way? It looks as if it is. But in that case, UKIP has lost its first, fine, careless rapture. Instead of acting as a reproach to everyone else, it becomes an imitation of them. And in that case, at least as far as I am concerned, it has lost its point.