It was always going to be difficult for anyone to lead UKIP after Nigel Farage.
The obvious reason is that he casts such a big shadow. In addition to his oratorical talents, he has become a brand – even, for some, a cult figure – and his customary pose, with cigarette and ale at hand, eventually became more recognisable than his Party’s logo.
Having led UKIP for over a third of its existence, including during its most successful years, and served as an MEP since its first electoral breakthrough in 1999, he is inevitably that Party’s dominant figure, as well as its most famous. Following that record would be a challenge for anybody.
There’s another reason, though, that those who have tried to do so have performed so badly. Farage’s years in charge didn’t just set a high bar for his successor, they restricted the pool of talent available to succeed him.
As we’ve noted before, UKIP’s history is punctuated by regular bouts of infighting. Factionalism, personal fallings-out, briefing and counter-briefing, creative uses of the rulebook and vicious battles through the Party’s internal structures repeatedly led to the resignation, suspension, sacking, alienation and general purging of a whole range of different people, from officials and youth leaders to parliamentary candidates, MEPs and even former leaders.
Each time, the stories and cast of combatants might change but the presence of Farage and the Faragistes was a reliable constant. Indeed, they were more than simply present: they were always on the winning side. “Nigel always wins” became a private mantra for his supporters and his critics alike.
Those years of scrapping left plenty of casualties. It paid off, in that Farage’s dominance of his Party was secured against those who wanted the crown, allowing him to perform his remarkably breakthrough between 2013 and 2016. But it caused a great deal of collateral damage. In the cause of securing his position, plenty of people fell into disfavour for crimes extending to coming across well on television, getting public attention or appearing capable – namely, giving even the slightest impression of having the potential to one day challenge his hegemony. To be a tall poppy in UKIP was for many years a dangerous thing, unless your name was Nigel.
As Paul said in 2015, adapting Gladstone’s comment on Disraeli, ‘if Farage is his party’s necessity he is also its curse’. He brought them to heights which they might otherwise never have reached. But when he departed, he left them unprepared for the future, and stripped of the developing new generation that a leader with an eye on the longer term and the good of his institution might have left behind.