Politics often descends into farce, but rarely can there have been such an entertaining seasonal offering as the pantomime currently presented by Ukip. It is hard not to laugh when a fringe party reduced to only one MP by recent election failures has an outbreak of feuding between its leadership and parliamentary wing - otherwise known as Douglas Carswell. Mind you, this show of unfestive feuding is likely to run well into the New Year, such are the divisions between the two camps.
The latest bout of a power struggle that is both personal and political began when the former Tory MP told a BBC Essex documentary the party needed a “fresh face” as leader after its faltering performance in the recent Oldham West and Royton by-election. “No party is defined by any one person,” he said, throwing in a dig at Nigel Farage’s claim that postal voting was rigged for good measure. “I don’t want to wake up the morning after the European referendum and hear people saying ‘it was the postal votes.’”
Ironically, this latest fight erupted just days after the bill backing a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union became law. Yet this is not the first time Farage has provoked such ire among his supposed allies. When he returned as leader after that ridiculous post-election resignation in May, the party’s then economics spokesman Patrick O’Flynn called him “snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive” - a rather different image to the cheeky chappie persona cultivated so carefully in the media.
This was, however, more polite than some abuse thrown by Ukip’s founder Alan Sked, who dismisses Farage as “a far-right failure.” Given the rise of Donald Trump in the United States and other right-wing populist movements across Europe, it is hard to argue with such analysis. Oldham should have been perfect terrain for Ukip. Farage argued Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader was “a gift”, while on the morning of the by-election he predicted “Labour dominoes in the north of England will begin to fall.”
Instead, Farage’s vice-like grip on his party seems to have become a gift for rivals across the political spectrum, allowing the Tories to move back towards the centre and Labour to overcome some of the difficulties caused by its own internal warfare. Farage’s act now feels tired, while he has become such a toxic force the anti-EU forces have split into two camps. Incredibly, this has left Carswell and his leader - Ukip’s most prominent figures - in different groups as they fight for the cause that compelled them to join their party.
Yet at heart of the fight between Carswell and Farage lies a serious struggle over precisely what sort of party Ukip should become, an issue that will move into sharper focus after the referendum, regardless of the result, since this will remove its central cause. Farage has created a party in his image: reactionary and xenophobic under a jovial exterior. The Clacton MP, however, says he wants a party that is not “unpleasant” or “socially illiberal”. He argues the way to move beyond its 13 per cent ratings plateau is to become an “optimistic, sunshine, smiley, socially liberal, unapologetically free market party.”
Curiously, this sounds exactly the sort of conservatism espoused by David Cameron before he reacted to the rise of Ukip. Given Carswell’s philosophy, and his seeming lack of leadership ambitions, it is hard to avoid the conclusion he joined the wrong party despite the guff he talks about new politics. The bedrock of Ukip support is elderly, low-skilled, socially conservative and disgruntled, those people feeling disadvantaged by globalisation. The party is for misanthropes and miserablists, not those facing the future filled with hope and confidence: this is why it increasingly sees Labour as its real enemy, not the Tories.
Yet while Carswell is stuck in the wrong party, he is right to point out the party he joined last year is stuck with a leader past his sell-by date. Farage will have been at the helm for the best part of a decade by the date of the referendum. He deserves credit for reining in some of the more reprehensible tendencies and becoming a force in British politics. But if the party is to have any hope of progressing after the EU ballot, it needs a new voice.
Such is the volatility of politics that just 19 months ago Ukip seemed to have the Tories on the run after breaking the century-long, two-party deadlock on national elections with its European parliamentary triumph while promoting concerns over gay marriage. Now there is the Oldham setback, falling membership and open warfare at the top, while the drying up of funds - just £49,000 in third quarter major donations - has led to staff layoffs. Some commentators have already said the party is finished, even as it stands on the cusp of achieving its long-cherished vote on Europe.
Personally I would be delighted to see Ukip disappear, given its malign influence on British politics and society. Yet the danger is it will dissolve into a cruder populist party, exploiting fears over immigration and stoking Islamophobia in even more divisive style than it does at the moment. This debate might be played out as pantomime today, but the danger is it could turn into something far darker in the future. So don’t laugh too hard at their travails.
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies