It isn’t recorded how many different leaders the Dodo population elected before eventually slipping into extinction, but it seems unlikely to rival the number elected by UKIP. The latest leadership race, triggered by Paul Nuttall’s resignation, having come to focus on who is best-placed to head off the attempt to take over the party by Anne-Marie Waters, the former hard leftist turned anti-Islam campaigner who ran Pegida UK alongside Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the English Defence League.
Neither potential outcome seems particularly promising – either Waters wins and UKIP becomes completely obsessed with the “evils” of Islam, or someone else beats her as the anti-Waters candidate, in which case they inherit the problems left by Nuttall.
In either scenario, there’s an interesting question as to who then speaks for UKIP’s former and remaining voters. We know that they didn’t split as expected in the General Election, with some vanishing from the ballot box entirely, others apparently attracted to Corbyn’s anti-government rhetoric, a rump sticking with what is left of the so-called “People’s Army”, and fewer than most imagined switching to a pro-Brexit Conservative Party.
That confusion will have some impact on Conservative thinking, but it remains to be seen exactly what the response will be. Will the Conservatives work harder to persuade them that they are the way to deliver their goals, or will they conclude that those amenable to voting Tory have already done so and the remainder are a mix of protest voters and those so strongly anti-Conservative that even Brexit can’t bring them to go blue?
This could also have consequences for our wider politics. From 2012 to 2016, the presence of a relatively strong UKIP – boosted by Nigel Farage’s profile – which seemed to draw voters from both main parties to one degree or another pushed two issues up the agenda: an EU referendum, yes, but more generally immigration.
Brexit isn’t going away, though there’s evidently a need for a revitalised cross-party vehicle to assist its progress. But if UKIP vanishes, or dwindles further under either potential leadership scenario, what happens to immigration as a political issue? Theresa May’s credibility on the topic is inevitably weakened by the failure to deliver the “tens of thousands” pledge, and the Labour leadership shows no interest in the issue or the voters who are concerned about it. Might those voters be left entirely without a mechanism to exert pressure on Westminster? If they are, how long would that vacuum last for?