The sight of Nigel Farage standing with Donald Trump in front of gold elevator doors has sent some UKIPers into an excited frenzy. They hail him as close friends with the President-elect, the original “Mr Brexit”, the bridge between Westminster and Washington. It feels like good news for UKIP.
It’s certainly good news for Farage, but that isn’t necessarily the same thing as good news for his party. Also on the visit to Trump Tower was Arron Banks, the multi-millionaire founder of Leave.EU.
Why was Banks there? In part, he was along for the ride. He regretted missing Farage’s trip to the Republican convention, and loved every minute of the later visit when the outgoing UKIP leader spoke at a Trump rally. Banks makes no secret of his love of adventure and his new-found addiction to politics, so was unlikely to pass up the prospect of this trip.
But it would be a mistake to simply dismiss it as (just) another boozy field trip. Trump looms large in Banks’s thinking about his own political work in the UK.
He loves Farage, but dislikes much about UKIP. The tendency for some of its leading figures to disagree with him rankles, and the tiresome restrictions of having to consult and persuade colleagues don’t sit easily with someone who views himself as a self-starter who answers to no-one. As he wrote recently:
“UKIP started the ball rolling, but the world has moved on. With its remorseless infighting, and absence of a clearly defined mission, it is not fit to spearhead a great national movement in its current form. It’s too traditional. Structurally, it is a mess, held together by rubber bands and by the extraordinary stamina of one man, Nigel Farage. It is clear that something new is required.”
For some time, Banks has been testing the ground for the idea of setting up his own political party. He now prefers the term “movement”, citing Momentum. Corbyn’s revolutionary guard isn’t an ideal inspiration – it, too, is engulfed in factionalism and struggles even to win internal Labour elections. Banks’s search for a more victorious example to follow has led him to Trump.
Here is someone who shares a love of outraging polite society, has embraced Farage, and has just won an election victory more through the air war than through a traditional ground game. In the referendum campaign, Banks found that building a campaigning machine capable of fighting the ground war is rather harder than coming up with tweets that wind up the media, so the idea that the latter could be a winning formula excites him.
Trump’s victory has convinced him that even if he could bend it to his will, which he can’t, UKIP wouldn’t be an effective vehicle for replicating this success in the UK. He now appears ready to turn that from a threat in the UKIP leadership race into action. According to an article in The Times:
‘Arron Banks, a close friend of Nigel Farage and a major Ukip backer, is considering ditching the party he funds and creating a new movement that would stand 200 parliamentary candidates “against the 200 worst, most corrupt MPs”…
Mr Banks said that this new group would not take explicit party positions, and instead the candidates would stand on a one-term promise to push through fundamental change in Westminster.
Among the ideas he thinks his new movement could support would be forcing through a change of the rules so that MPs can only hold office for two terms, abolition of the House of Lords and pushing for an elected senate, and insisting on a lower age limit of 40 for MPs to stop career politicians.
“It’s a very simple agenda: to destroy the professional politician. I like the idea of clearing the place out, setting new rules, maybe reducing the number of MPs. Not a party from the left or right. Just to clear out the worst lot,” Mr Banks said.’
This is why that Trump visit heralds bad news for UKIP. Not only could they lose their major donor, but he wants to put his money and his organisation – including many UKIP volunteers – to work on a rival project in which his word goes. Worse, Farage himself could decamp to lead this new push – he wants his life back, but he is enjoying this latest glory lap and could well be tempted to become the figurehead for Banks’s new movement. Their target voters would be exactly the same as those targeted by UKIP, and it seems inevitable that their shared dislike of Douglas Carswell would see UKIP’s only MP become a target for their campaign.
The idea itself, of course, isn’t novel. Banks cites Martin Bell as his inspiration (which gives him another chance to have a crack at his other pet hate, Neil Hamilton). After the expenses scandal, a few independents – such as Esther Rantzen – tried to mimic Bell but fell flat.
Banks, of course, is mulling a well-funded national campaign to support such challengers. But someone has also tried that idea before. The fact that most readers won’t have heard of the Jury Team rather demonstrates its failure to cut through.
Launched in 2009, it had a lot of similarities with Banks’s plan.
Like Banks, its multi-millionaire founder, Sir Paul Judge, believed that the time was ripe for a movement of non-politician candidates to cut through on a motto of “cleaning up politics”. Like Banks, Judge promised a group of wealthy donors to ensure the Jury Team was well-funded. Like Banks, Judge demanded not that his candidates share any political world-view, but that they sign up to a programme of democratic reform – including term limits for MPs. Like Banks, Judge cited Bell’s example and even managed to sign him up as a figurehead of the campaign.
If Judge’s analysis was right, he had a golden opportunity. Faith in party politics was at an all-time low. Events in Westminster were the talk of every pub in the land – you would have been hard-pressed to find a voter who didn’t know that MPs had claimed for porn, duck houses and moat-cleaning. People were angry, and the main parties had struggled to find a convincing answer. Surely a well-funded insurgency couldn’t fail?
The Jury Team is now forgotten, which demonstrates how badly it crashed and burned. It proved hard to find decent candidates, and harder still to knit them together into anything coherent while simultaneously maintaining the principle that they were independents rather than compelled to toe a party line. A leadership that did what it wanted without a grassroots party to answer to predictably didn’t have any way to learn or improve its strategy. Meanwhile, the main parties proved rather more resilient than expected, and the vast majority of voters went into the polling booth in 2010 mulling whether they wanted Labour, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats to govern, not whether they wanted a loose coalition of independents to impose term limits on MPs.
So not only is the idea not new, but it failed the last time it was tried.
Banks might outperform Judge, of course – he has more money, a pre-existing organisation and Farage would be a far more famous figurehead than Martin Bell. But the structural challenges of candidate selection, message coherence and a reliance on good judgement from an unaccountable centre are still in place. UKIP insiders question whether Leave.EU’s mostly UKIPer activists would fight against their own party.
Furthermore, the fact remains that voters might not like parties but they do innately understand what they are, know broadly what they stand for and tend, even now, to vote for them. The demand for such a campaign is also questionable; the Vaz story is no expenses scandal, Trump is far from universally popular in the UK, and while it’s easy to talk about riding a Brexit wave, the General Election is still supposedly four years away.
Banks could yet do UKIP serious damage, though. They already face a financial cliff when British MEPs are abolished, and have struggled to retain members during the chaotic leadership race. Losing their major donor and their most famous face at the same time would hurt – but losing them to a rival operation which will compete with them for dissatisfied voters would only make the blow worse.