There is surely nothing more frightening to a British politician, in current times, than to shake open the morning newspaper and see your name attached to the words ‘honeymoon period’. The honeymoon period is now the poisoned chalice of British politics. Nick Clegg had one. So did Theresa May. Both suffered the sobering, politically toxic, aftereffects.
But May and Clegg are not alone. A debilitating post-honeymoon hangover is currently being nursed by an entire party: UKIP. Prior to June 2016, the party’s leadership – the self-styled ‘bad boys of Brexit’ – successfully carried out a seismic political insurgency against the European Union. Now, however, UKIP has shed 85% of its voters and is holding a leadership election whose frontrunners include Anne Marie Waters – who has called Islam “evil” – and David Kurten – who has linked homosexuality to child sex abuse. UKIP, a party that terrified David Cameron, has suddenly returned to the maverick margins of British politics. How did this happen?
The timing of the snap election undoubtedly played a central role. The election was a two-party affair – an old-school outcome that sent spasms of nostalgic elation down the creaky vertebrates of pre-millennials. Brexit framed the election; but, with negotiations in their precarious infancy, the parties could do little more than sketch out broad ideas and in some cases hypothetical fantasies. In a campaign predicated on generalisations, it was difficult for the smaller parties (particularly UKIP) to differentiate their policies from those of Labour and the Conservatives. With no room for nuance, the two-party polarisation of British politics was restored, with damaging consequences for UKIP.
However, the snap election was a political anomaly, and UKIP’s problems – in theory – should have been transitory. Both the main parties are now meandering towards a more moderate, economically rational, Brexit consensus. For the Conservatives, this has been witnessed around the Cabinet table, with chatter of a lengthy transition after we depart the single market. As for Labour, their rock-solid promise to lead Britain out the single market has been craftily shelved. In the midst of this backsliding, a hard-Brexit shaped gully has opened up in British politics.
Yet, if there are political points to be scored, it is highly unlikely that UKIP will be the beneficiary. The party has managed to turn a passing electoral slump into a profound political collapse through its own incompetence and mismanagement.
Following the EU referendum, the party waged a petty and fruitless internal war that effectively sabotaged two of its most capable politicians: Steven Woolfe and Diane James. As observers will remember, Woolfe was punched in the face by a fellow UKIP politician, while James could only put up with the infighting for 18 days before craving a less painful existence. UKIP was consequently left with Paul Nuttall – a polarising figure at best, who lacked the grit of Woolfe or the smarmy yet undoubtedly compelling charm of Nigel Farage. When a charismatic leader could have exposed the personal deficiencies of May and Corbyn, UKIP’s trivial ego battle caused the party to pick a dud.
ut this miscalculation made the party unattractive for a more profound reason than personality politics. It thwarted any attempt to transform UKIP into a more professional, credible and resilient organisation. In effect, it prevented the party from evolving from a protest movement into serious political outlet. As I wrote in July 2016, before Woolfe’s leadership bid was foreshortened, some members of the party – Woolfe included – were trying to fashion a coherent ideological direction for the party. Woolfe wanted to “ruthlessly” target Labour seats in the north, and exploit Corbyn’s limp grip on working-class voters.
Though Corbyn managed to solidify Labour support in many northern areas during the election, the former industrial working classes are still crucial floating voters. They can decisively shape an election (as Brexit demonstrated), and if Labour equivocates on its pledge to end free movement, many of these votes will be up for grabs once more. In reality, though, UKIP’s platform has been so dramatically weakened that any sort of northern revival is highly unlikely. Nuttall’s election strategy essentially involved squawking about face veils and carping the Conservatives for pinching UKIP policies. Without a forward-thinking leader, UKIP’s ideological evolution swiftly unravelled, along with its electoral appeal.
Now that even Nuttall has jumped ship, the party has been left with no leader and no discernible direction. UKIP’s remaining mavericks will likely stitch together a nasty, reactionary hotchpotch of ideas that will be revered by Katie Hopkins and reviled by everyone else. There may be a UKIP-sized hole in British politics, but UKIP is far from capable of filling it.
Sam Bright is the Director of Backbench