When Britain voted to leave the European Union last summer, the entire political landscape was thrown into disarray. The referendum campaign divided the nation up into Leavers and Remainers, largely along geographical and class-based lines, and almost a year later these new divisions continue to eclipse the old left/right ideological spectrum. This has been good news for the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, who have branded themselves as the principle voices of either side of the European debate, whilst Labour have been left stranded in the middle, torn between their eurosceptic, working-class voter base and their more metropolitan and pro-European members and MPs. However, the greatest irony is that the party which has suffered the most following the referendum result is the one which has been advocating Brexit the loudest in recent years.
Founded in 1993 in protest against John Major’s signing of the Maastricht Treaty, UKIP was a single-issue party for most of its early history, focusing entirely on calling for Britain to leave the European Union. Back in the 1990s this was something of a fringe view, and as a result UKIP remained a fringe party, but under Nigel Farage’s charismatic leadership they adopted a far more wide-ranging and populist platform. Farage skillfully blended the party’s hardcore euroscepticism with a tough approach to immigration and a hostility towards socially liberal and progressive values, reaching out to those voters who feel locked out of the corridors of power. Despite the extreme nature of much of UKIP’s rhetoric, Farage was right to speak for those who no one else was speaking for – white, working-class voters who live outside London and other affluent hubs – and in this respect UKIP performed a necessary role.
Likewise, UKIP was ahead of the curve when it came to Brexit, identifying the EU’s fundamental flaws and pushing for Britain’s withdrawal from this irredeemable institution at a time when almost all eurosceptics were seeking to change Europe from within. Despite being formed to promote peace, co-operation and free trade between the nations of Europe, it didn’t take long for the EU to set its sights on the establishment of a United States of Europe through an ever-closer political union whilst becoming crystallised in layers of sclerotic bureaucracy and burdensome red tape, and UKIP played a vital role in exposing the worst excesses of Brussels and pushing the Conservatives towards a more eurosceptic position. Indeed, it is unlikely that David Cameron would have even authorised a referendum on Britain’s EU membership if it wasn’t for the pressure applied by Nigel Farage’s self-styled ‘People’s Army,’ and for that we will always owe a debt of gratitude to the former UKIP leader.
Nevertheless, whilst UKIP played an integral role in guaranteeing a referendum, the vote for Brexit only happened because Farage and his allies played a backseat role in the official Vote Leave campaign. It is unlikely that a Leave campaign headed by senior UKIP figures would have attracted broad popular appeal – indeed, Farage’s few public appearances during the referendum proved to be highly damaging, most notably his launch of a poster that was widely condemned as racist for its negative portrayal of refugees. In the wake of the Brexit vote, UKIP have become even more redundant as their sole reason for existing has been fulfilled, and with a general election now on the horizon it is unclear what function they continue to perform. Britain is leaving the EU and in Theresa May the Conservatives are now led by someone that eurosceptic right-wingers regard as a ‘proper Tory’ intent on representing the same blue-collar workers previously championed by Farage; UKIP are therefore no longer needed.
Over the past year, UKIP has split into two factions. The first, led by Nigel Farage and his financial backer Arron Banks, seeks to push the party down a more nativist and populist path, openly imitating the xenophobic rhetoric of Donald Trump, whilst the second faction espouses a more inclusive message that focuses less on immigration and more on tackling elitism and corruption in politics. The figurehead for this latter faction was UKIP’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell, but last month he left the party after a bitter and very public falling-out with Farage. Carswell now sits as an independent MP, but today he announced that he will be standing down from Parliament at the general election and voting for the Conservatives. This is a man who left the Tories in order to put pressure on David Cameron to hold an EU referendum, and now that this has been achieved he has dispensed with UKIP, stating that ‘voting UKIP after Brexit is like voting for the Anti-Corn Law League.’ One suspects that many UKIP voters will be following Carswell’s lead and backing Theresa May in June.
It is not just the Carswell faction which is abandoning UKIP; Farage ally Arron Banks has left the party and is in the process of setting up a new right-wing outfit – the Patriotic Alliance – presumably with the intent of creating an alt-right, Trump-style popular movement that can replace UKIP as the most vocal opponent of mass immigration. It is unlikely that Banks is operating without the blessing of Farage, and today the former UKIP leader announced that he will not be standing for Parliament in the general election, a surprising decision that says a lot about the semi-detached relationship that he now has with the party that he transformed into a formidable organisation. Far from revitalising UKIP and providing it with a new sense of purpose for the post-Brexit age, Paul Nuttall is instead presiding over the party’s slow but inevitable collapse; it is now clearer than ever before that Theresa May’s Conservatives are the only party that can speak for working people, stand up for Britain’s interests and deliver on Brexit.