No reasonable observer could doubt that Nigel Farage’s impact on British politics has been transformational. Under his leadership, the United Kingdom Independence Party recorded excellent results in European elections and, more recently, the local elections of May.
Analysis of the party’s voters showed clearly that it has morphed from a protest group complaining about attacks on freedom by Brussels to a much broader force, championing the grievances of the disenfranchised, the old and – to a much greater extent than many realised – the poor. Meanwhile, it is embarking upon a civil war in British conservatism.
This column previously noted that life after May’s elections was always going to be harder for the party – and Mr Farage in particular. It has proved so. We report today that the leader faces his first major revolt from within the party, as senior figures vent their displeasure at the prospect of an electoral pact with the Tories.
The spat goes to the very heart of both what Ukip is, and what it wants to be. As a vehicle for public anger, it has been successful in fracturing Britain’s right and destabilising the Conservative Party, from which many of its founding members came. But does the party also have serious pretensions to government, with an appetite for the messy compromises, grubby deals and pragmatism that real power necessitates? Mr Farage seems to think so, but many of his lieutenants do not. Luckily for Ukip, there is some very recent political evidence they can call on. The Liberal Democrats also emerged from a civil war within a movement, and graduated from party of protest to party of power. They have suffered electorally as a result – but done much good in government. Ukip’s members should take note.
So, too, should Mr Farage. His plain-speaking and charisma remain the party’s greatest asset, but no effective party of government can function as a one-man band. He has, then, two urgent objectives, both relating to his senior team. First, familiarise the public with them; and second, persuade them that if you want to exercise power, you sometimes have to swallow hard. He may need some luck.