In the wake of the horrible murder of Jo Cox, Dominic Cummings insisted to Vote Leave staff that the killing, while terrible, would not swing the referendum. Voters would balance in their minds revulsion at the murder with openness to the arguments about Brexit. They would not confuse the great mass of Leave supporters, or the Leave cause, with the solitary man who gave his name in court as: “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.
Parts of the Left seemed to believe otherwise, and perhaps in some cases hope so too. But Cummings was right. And if the killing of an MP had less electoral impact than some expected, then fisticuffs between two MEPs is likely to have even less. Many of UKIP’s voters are hardcore. They are unlikely revise their view of the Party simply because one of the two was hospitalised after the clash, and will probably share Nigel Farage’s view that the incident will “be looked back upon as one of these things that happens between men”. (Up to a point: it’s hard to imagine Conservative MEPs behaving the same way – Nirj Diva, for example, clocking, say, Geoffrey Van Orden.)
But if there is a floor beneath which UKIP will not fall, if it holds together, there is also a ceiling above which it can’t rise, and it is probably lower than some of its supporters expect. Farage, who should now properly be in the Lords, was UKIP. It isn’t clear that anyone else can embody it in the same way. On paper, Steven Woolfe – to whom we wish a speedy and full recovery – or Paul Nuttall ought to be able to scoop up what were once natural Labour voters in the Midlands and North: the kind of people who see the Conservatives as several steps too far. They ought to be able to keep the pressure up on Theresa May’s Government over immigration.
Diane James’s resignation was therefore a blessing in disguise for the party, allowing it to have the full leadership election that it didn’t have when she was returned. However, it not clear that UKIP has the cultural range or organisational ability to take many seats off Labour in 2020, and it is venomously factionalised. Maybe it will morph into a new and effective populist party before the next election. Or perhaps May will mop up some of its leaders; Woolfe was apparently considering defecting, and may still be, for all we know. I like to think that Douglas Carswell’s theme song is “I’m working my way back to you, babe” (“with a burning love inside”).
I see the real question as being not whether Brexit will be hard or soft, but open or closed. UKIP, or something like it, is the natural home for those who want a closed Brexit – very low immigration indeed, tarrifs, unreformed welfare spending on older voters, few new houses. Here is a mission for UKIP now that Britain has voted to become an independent nation, thereby removing the reason for it having been brought into existence in the first place.