Steven Woolfe, the frontrunner to become the next leader of UKIP, dramatically pulled out of the race on Monday night. For good measure, he resigned his party membership too. It’s a sensational story. The party’s leadership battle was triggered when the incumbent, Diane James, resigned less than a month after taking office. Woolfe threw his hat into the ring, only to find himself hospitalised after an “altercation” with one of his UKIP colleagues. Now he’s out the door himself, claiming the party he wanted to lead is in a “death spiral”.
But what makes this story so baffling, and so important, is that this follows the high point of UKIP’s short existence. Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a sea change for British politics but also a validation of UKIP’s central worldview. Its meltdown comes just a year after it achieved the third largest vote share in the General Election. It won the European Parliament election a year before that. But with the goal of Brexit now achieved, perhaps UKIP has nothing left to fight for.
Is this the end of the road for UKIP, or can it stage yet another come back? There are a number of possible paths the party might take and whichever they choose could have a profound effect on the next few years of British politics. So what might their future hold?
New captain, steady ship
The party elects a candidate like Paul Nuttall MEP who can unite its warring factions and put them back on the same side. Whether it’s by building a consensus or by ousting his rivals, he manages to stamp his authority in the party and bring its many factions in line. Theresa May carries on siphoning UKIP support in Tory-leaning constituencies, but working class Nuttall starts to resonate with Labour voters in the North and Midlands. By 2020, traditional Labour heartlands that nevertheless voted strongly for Leave and aren’t fond of Jeremy Corbyn start to look winnable for UKIP.
Whoever wins the party’s leadership, its divides are impossible to overcome. Woolfe’s warning that UKIP is “ungovernable” without Nigel Farage’s leadership and the shared task of the Referendum is proved true. Woolfe, Nuttall and others drift towards May’s Conservatives and UKIP’s vote share dwindles. Farage follows through with his promise to retire and continues to baffle Fox News viewers as the network’s inexplicably British commentator. The UKIP vote splits, saving face for Labour in the North but giving a clear boost to May.
Farage is back. Again.
For a man who has been followed by controversy and who has never successfully been elected to Parliament, Nigel Farage has had an outsized impact on British politics. Already back in office as interim leader, he is either re-elected or appointed to hold on to the job full time. The party takes him back again but internal divisions remain. UKIP stumbles on but the electoral breakthrough Farage has always promised continues to allude him.
All political parties are coalitions of different interests held together by a common cause. With Brexit achieved, there is nothing to keep UKIP’s warring factions together. The party splits. Farage and his acolytes, including Woolfe and right wing firebrand journalist Rahim Kassam form a new “Alt-Right” movement inspired by the Trump campaign in America and the more populist elements of UKIP. They are backed by Arron Banks, the eccentric millionaire who has long backed Farage’s campaigns and who has already threatened to start a breakaway party. The more traditional free market wing of UKIP, centred around the party’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell, and including senior figures like Suzanne Evans, Patrick Flynn MEP and Mark Reckless, also split off. Nuttall and others try and keep the old party afloat. The three factions fight amongst themselves as the public gradually lose interest.
Whatever happens to UKIP, there are millions of potential votes up for grabs. If UKIP can hold on to them, a Parliamentary breakthrough could follow. On the other hand, a UKIP collapse could help Corbyn’s Labour hold on to some otherwise unsafe seats. But as she swings towards “hard Brexit” the real vote winner might just be Theresa May.