Will Nigel Farage Win UKIP’s Civil War?
After its Brexit vote success, the anti-immigration party has suffered by-election defeats, and now an internecine feud between former leader Farage and its only MP.
It’s always bad news in politics when you find yourself being forced to deny a crisis.
But Gawain Towler, an activist, candidate, and press spokesperson for the anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) breezily told The Daily Beast on Wednesday: “I don’t think UKIP is having an existential crisis. Superficially and externally it may look like that, but, it won’t look like that for much longer.”
Towler’s right about one thing—it certainly looks bad for UKIP to the casual observer.
Since the Brexit referendum, UKIP has effectively lost its USP to the ruling Conservative party, which has stolen all of their clothes and occupied their territory so comprehensively that UKIP’s new leader—Paul Nuttall—wasn’t even able to win a by-election last week.
UKIP is a textbook case of how easily political parties that are perceived to be single-issue can become victims of their own success.
Having made the U.K. leaving the EU its one and only easily identifiable policy, UKIP now finds itself in a relevancy wasteland, with nothing to convincingly rail about.
Although national polling data shows the party consistently winning the backing of between 12 percent and 15 percent of voters, the party has always failed to break through and win more than one parliamentary seat in general elections, due to Britain’s “first past the post” system, which only rewards the candidate in each constituency who gets the most votes.
The system, which has been praised for militating against extremist candidates, inevitably blocks minority parties from gaining a foothold in Parliament.
But UKIP’s problems go deeper than the workings of the British electoral system. The real problem is that the traditional UKIP voter—white, poor, and angry—has fallen back in love with the newly xenophobic, anti-immigration, Brexit-at-any-cost, ruling Conservatives.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has wooed them remorselessly with her red line on immigration and “Brexit means Brexit” message—even promising to make “no deal” with Europe ahead of “a bad deal.”
In two by-elections held last week for parliamentary seats that had become vacant after the local MPs resigned for other jobs, UKIP, far from riding high on a wave of Brexit fervor, were thrashed by the Conservatives and Labour.
For Towler and his ilk, the best hope of renewing the party’s relevance is that the newly populist Conservative Government reneges on its Brexit promises.
Referring to the party’s new leader, Towler said, “I feel that, as Mr. Nuttall said, our time will come. There seems to be a growing discrepancy between the rhetoric coming out of the government and the reality. As the details of the deal come out, there is going to be a gap, and disillusionment.
“Our job then will be to hold the government’s feet to the fire, and to achieve the Brexit that was voted for.”
But on top of its political irrelevancy, the party is also struggling to contain a civil war within the ranks, with a high profile power struggle between two of its most important and high-profile public faces; ur-Brexiteer and former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, and Douglas Carswell, the party’s only MP.
Carswell defected to UKIP from the Tories but then won his seat fair and square in the ensuing by-election and held it in the general election. He fell out with Donald Trump’s favorite British politician over his extreme anti-immigration stance, but, rather inconveniently for Farage, Carswell is the only “kipper” to ever actually win a seat in the British Parliament.
Farage wrote an angry opinion piece in The Telegraph on Tuesday calling for Carswell to be kicked out of the party, claiming that the MP, who had initially been warmly welcomed into the UKIP fold, was a “Tory posh boy” who was convinced that making “immigration” a key plank in the referendum campaign “would put off his nice middle class friends from voting leave.” (Farage refused to tone down the anti-immigration message in the ensuing debate.)
Farage wrote that Carswell, “has brought nothing to the party at all other than constant division, at times I believe deliberately stirred up to cause maximum damage to the party.”
Farage accused Carswell of sabotage on Wednesday, telling the Press Association: “Did he ever leave the Conservatives? He was certainly representing them during the referendum campaign.”
Carswell is said to lose no opportunity to run down Farage, and The Telegraph claimed this week that Carswell played a role in blocking an honor for Farage.
Leaked emails showed Carswell joking that Farage should be given an OBE “for services to headline writers,” and one of UKIP’s principal donors said he was preparing to stand against Carswell in the next election.
Reports continue to circulate that Carswell is now in negotiations with the Conservatives about returning to the party he left in 2014.
It’s a mighty mess, and one which, Towler concedes, is driven principally by personal enmity between Farage and Carswell—neither of whom responded to emails from The Daily Beast—who have both been accused of being egotistical attention seekers in their time.
Towler told The Daily Beast that the row, which he admitted was “unedifying,” is “as much about personality as anything,” but declined to comment on the frequent speculation that Farage felt threatened by Carswell’s clumsy attempts to take control of the party.
All eyes are now on the April gathering of UKIP’s National Executive Council which provides the only mechanism to expel Carswell from the party.
UKIP officials won’t say whether or not they expect to be rid of the troublesome Carswell after the conclave, but Towler did tell the Daily Beast that he doubts there will be much love for Carswell in the room, saying: “I don’t think Mr. Carswell amounts to being a faction. That would suggest he has significant support within party.”
One of the many ironies of Brexit is that of all the people who might have been expected to suffer the direst consequences from Britain’s decision to leave the EU, few would have suspected the result would have such a calamitous impact on the political party which assiduously campaigned for it for decades, and without the existence of which the referendum itself would probably never have been called.