No sooner had I noted that Farage’s followers retain their dominance of the UKIP machine and its rulebook, but the party’s NEC attempted to prove me wrong – excluding Steven Woolfe, the favoured successor, from the running.
Since then, the outgoing leader has issued a denunciation of the excessive powers (and, he alleges, unimpressive calibre) of that Committee. In reality, the news that the NEC has a remarkable amount of weight to throw around, and sometimes does so unfairly, won’t have come as a surprise to him. In many of the earlier power struggles within the People’s Army, those powers were routinely used to shut down, suspend and expel a variety of people whom Farage found to be obstructive or undesirable. Oddly enough, he didn’t seem to have a problem with the party’s rules until they were used to disrupt his plans for its future.
It would be a mistake, though, to assume that this is the end of the matter. Farage is a past master of the UKIP rulebook, and for obvious reasons remains his party’s dominant figure. He has never lost an internal battle so far, and he has no intention of doing so now. Two moves seem to be underway to ensure that he still gets his way.
First, the decision has been taken that if the NEC won’t play ball then it ought to be abolished. To do so would require an Extraordinary General Meeting, which itself needs the support of 20 per cent of UKIP branches. Leave.EU, Arron Banks’s campaign vehicle, is at pains to say it is a cross-party group but has conveniently provided its members with the facility to demand that their local UKIP branch supports an EGM. Banks himself says “120 branches have responded” to the call, and Guido reports that the Faragistes have secured the required number. Quite what structure would replace the NEC isn’t yet confirmed, but Banks has previously discussed a “grassroots” movement (neglecting the fact the NEC is elected by, er, the grassroots) which he and others presumably think would be less likely to disagree with their preferred direction.
The second move is the development of a Plan B, in case the EGM route fails for some reason. In the absence of a Woolfe candidacy, Banks and others have been rallying to the person they feel to be the next best thing: Diane James MEP. The near-hero of the Eastleigh by-election hasn’t always had the warmest relationship with what can often be an extremely blokey clique around Farage, but she has avoided the fate of Evans and established herself as a solid media performer. She lacks the impact of Woolfe but, the thinking goes, is at least a reliable loyalist who doesn’t bear the taint of a close association with Carswell.
The latest news in the race is that Jonathan Arnott, the MEP for the North East who had the backing of Paul Nuttall, has dropped out, saying that he felt it likely he would only come second in the race. While he is yet to endorse another candidate, he did say that his withdrawal would “provide sufficient time for my supporters to endorse another candidate, whoever she may be”.
Given that this is UKIP, that carefully placed “she” seems more likely to be a hint than an unexpected outbreak of political correctness. Whom might he mean? Three of the remaining five candidates are female – James (backed by Banks and co), Lisa Duffy (backed by Patrick O’Flynn and Suzanne Evans) and Elizabeth Jones (a serial candidate from London, and NEC member). It seems most likely that he would favour James over the other two, though that remains to be seen.
So here’s the state of play: a campaign is underway to restructure UKIP in order to overturn the decision to exclude Woolfe, which coincidentally would also allow Banks to remodel the party exactly as he wishes. If that doesn’t succeed, then the money and the bulk of the machine are weighing in behind Diane James. If all else fails, Farage could always return to save his party in its hour of need – he hinted just the other day that it’s a possibility. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time.
Meanwhile, as Henry noted the other day, a huge opportunity is in danger of being missed. A swift leadership election, followed by a high-profile redefinition of what they are about (not unlike that performed by the Conservative Party) would have given them the chance to target disaffected Labour voters hot off the back of the referendum. Labour’s ongoing woes mean that such a realignment is still possible, but UKIP would be foolish to spend their time indulging in internal fighting rather than leaping on the chance while it still exists. The anecdotal evidence of local by-elections suggests they are either stagnant or falling back at the ballot box – when they could be winning over large tranches of new voters.