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Nigel Farage may be over but Ukip is here to stay – whether we vote to leave Europe or not

A narrow win for the In camp would not settle the Europe question or kill off Ukip, just as defeat in the Scottish independence referendum did not stop the SNP

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 20 April 2016 16:19 BST
Ukip insiders believe that the party no longer needs to be a one-man band
Ukip insiders believe that the party no longer needs to be a one-man band (Getty)

The apparent absence of a civil war inside Ukip – a party often riven by infighting – is misleading. The EU referendum, which Ukip played such a big part in securing, has created a fragile truce between Nigel Farage and a growing number of enemies within the fold. But whatever the referendum result, the ceasefire will not last beyond 23 June, when a behind the scenes power struggle will become public.

We might assume that, if Britain votes to leave the EU, Farage would be unassailable: a hero who had achieved the party’s mission against all the odds. But his celebrations, no doubt mainly of the liquid variety, might prove short-lived.

Although Farage dismisses post-referendum speculation as “irrelevant” and “Westminster tittle-tattle", Ukip insiders believe he plans to rebrand and relaunch the party, modelling it on Italy’s populist Five Star Movement led by Beppe Grillo, a comedian. Ukip could become an internet-based party, which would enhance the leader’s power.

There are rumours that Farage could try to abolish Ukip’s national executive – where, to his frustration, his writ does not always run – and replace it with a management board firmly under his thumb.

What would be the point of Ukip if the public votes for Brexit? It would not declare “mission accomplished” and stride happily off into the sunset. Love it or hate it, Ukip is now our third nationwide party, after winning 13 per cent of the votes at last year’s general election. It came second in 125 seats and is now a threat to Labour in some of its traditional working class strongholds.

Ukip is expected to win about six seats in the Welsh Assembly elections in two weeks, its first foothold. Jeremy Corbyn’s declaration in favour of EU membership could boost Ukip’s medium term prospects throughout Britain and the Labour leader has not yet proved he can attract blue collar support.

And yet his critics inside the party are making different plans for Nigel. Win or lose the referendum, they are determined to force a leadership contest this year and believe one is more likely than not. If the referendum is won, it might look odd to move against Farage so soon after an historic triumph. But triggering a leadership contest might be only way to stop Farage bouncing the party into backing his reforms.

Farage would naturally have a much better chance of seeing off a challenge if the Outers win the referendum. But if the Remain camp prevails, he could face a much tougher fight. An attempt to oust him would be a strange way to reward a man who has taken Ukip from 3 per cent in the opinion polls to the verge of a referendum victory.

The critics believe he repels as many people as he attracts and has now hit a ceiling of 10-15 per cent in the polls. To break through under a first past the post system that cruelly translated Ukip’s 3.9m votes into just one seat, they argue that a new leader is needed to broaden its appeal beyond core issues like immigration to, for example, stronger support for the NHS and a tougher stance against corporate tax avoidance.

His internal opponents also cite Farage’s dictatorial style, his tendency to fall out with close colleagues and determination to sideline potential rivals and successors. There are also allegations of lax financial controls and claims – hotly contested by his allies – that he “spends money like water” on items such as his personal security and transport.

Although his four-year term does not end until 2018, Farage's enemies claim he needs a new mandate to settle the party’s post-referendum direction and point out that has not faced a contested leadership election since 2010.

Ukip insiders believe that the party no longer needs to be a one-man band because there are now at least two credible alternatives – both of whom would probably run. Suzanne Evans, a centrist, was interim leader for about five minutes when Farage honoured his pledge to stand down for failing to win South Thanet last year and then changed his mind. Evans has been suspended for six months for allegedly plotting against Farage, but if she is allowed to stand she would probably win the support of Douglas Carswell, the solitary Ukip MP, and Patrick O’Flynn, the MEP and former economics – both among the many Ukippers who have fallen out with Farage.

The other likely candidate would be Paul Nuttall, the deputy leader. He enjoys strong support across the party and appears to have been sidelined recently by Farage, who has given a higher profile to Diane James, another MEP.

One thing is certain: the referendum battle will be followed swiftly by another one for Ukip’s soul. The party is not going to disappear. A narrow win for the In camp, which might be as good as it can get, would not settle the Europe question for long or kill Ukip, just as defeat in the Scottish referendum did not halt the SNP bandwagon.

Ukip is here to stay. The interesting question is whether Farage is.

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