Just when the Conservatives are threatening to let their conference turn this week into the dullest in recent memory, trust Ukip to start throwing flares. Where Descartes proclaimed “I think, therefore I am”, the Kippers’ musings on existence might be boiled down to “No pyro, no party”.
It was to be expected, really. Ukip are the party of Leavers. They appeal to “the left behind”. They organised themselves around the idea that the UK should leave the EU. They are made up of members, like Douglas Carswell and Suzanne Evans, who left other parties. Robert Kilroy-Silk left politics, Mark Reckless left the House of Commons, Godfrey Bloom has repeatedly taken leave of his senses, and Nigel Farage enjoys leaving so much he resigned as leader, and then came back to leave all over again. Diane James clearly wanted to continue that noble precedent. But her departure is perhaps the most bizarre in the party’s turbulent history.
In a statement, James claimed she did “not have the sufficient authority, nor the full support of all my MEP colleagues and party officers to implement changes I believe necessary”. Moreover, it has been reported that the Electoral Commission, when receiving documentation confirming James’ election, discovered that she had signed by adding, in Latin, the words “under duress” after her name, giving credence to the rumour that she had been bullied into standing by Nigel Farage.
It’s a staggering swipe at a party which has descended into even greater internal turmoil than Labour in the post-coalition landscape. Just think how much wider the margin of the referendum result could have been, or how much more dangerous the party could be electorally, if they had their house in order.
The truth is that the spectre of Farage hovers over Ukip all too ominously. He may have ridden off into the sunset, but like North Korea’s Kim Il-sung, he remains the supreme leader, and his portrait beams from every wall. Without his blessing, it simply isn’t possible to become leader, but with his blessing comes a ferocious backlash from the likes of ex-Tories Carswell, Evans and Neil Hamilton.
Diane James was caught in the crossfire between old guard and new. Farage and his allies accuse Carswell et al of being “political careerists” wanting to turn Ukip into their own personal Tory party, while there is a feeling among this latter group that the party needs a cleaner, professional, more modern image – “less tweed to succeed”, if you will. Both sides have a point.
James, sadly, was never cut out for the role. She was obviously shoehorned into running, and at the lectern never looked or sounded comfortable with those “Magpie May” comments. She was considered a “unifier”, but didn't give the impression she could unify the electorate.
The focus now shifts to her successor, and the obvious frontrunners are Suzanne Evans and Steven Woolfe. Evans’ election would be another symbolic poke in Labours’ eye (look, comrades, another female leader!) and she is undoubtedly a clever operative, writing the party’s entire manifesto in days before the last general election, which saw them return a record number of votes. Paul Lambert, Ukip’s former head of communications, told Channel 4 News’ Michael Crick that she was “the only person untainted so far”.
The Sun’s Harry Cole, however, was quick off the mark when announcing James’ decision, tweeting “Keep a very beady eye on Steven Woolfe”. He had appeared the obvious choice last time round, foiled by the Boris Johnson excuse of not handing in his homework before the deadline, but Woolfe has since appeared on Question Time, where he gave a very polished performance. Well-spoken, well-dressed, without any of the fire and brimstone that so polarised viewers of Farage. He looks an assured speaker; his background is a dream for Ukip, and a nightmare for Labour.
Of mixed-race parentage from Manchester’s Moss Side, he is calm, considered, and though privately educated, seems eminently approachable: the failing of countless MPs. If he were running for the Labour leadership, we’d be talking of him in terms of a future Prime Minister. As it is, he could be the man to break their stranglehold on Northern constituencies that voted solidly for Brexit, as Labour digs itself ever deeper into self-indulgent student politics. Cole tweeted: “There were sighs of relief amongst Labour MPs in leave seats when Woolf [sic] didn’t win this time.”
Heaven knows what those MPs must be thinking this morning. They thought they’d been granted a stay of execution; it hasn’t lasted as long as they’d hoped. It’s been Ukip firing flares for a while now, but how long before the distress signals start flooding into Labour HQ?
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