Seriously, What The Heck Is Going On With UKIP Right Now?
TL;DR: There's a lot of infighting.
Just two months ago, the UK Independence Party was celebrating the biggest night of its life as Britain voted to leave the European Union. Now the party has lost its leader Nigel Farage, is struggling in the opinion polls, and is racked with infighting amid a leadership contest that is devoid of high-profile names. Here BuzzFeed News takes a look at what's happening.
Following Farage's surprise resignation in July, the party's holding a leadership contest – with the winner due to be announced on 15 September. But the favourite, Steven Woolfe, was excluded from the race because he submitted his application papers 17 minutes late. And Suzanne Evans, a former deputy chair of UKIP who's not exactly the best of pals with Farage, was also excluded from standing because she'd been suspended for disloyalty.
~Meanwhile~ in Wales it's all gone a bit crazy because Welsh UKIP leader Nathan Gill has quit the party grouping after a big fallout with new UKIP assembly member (and disgraced former Tory MP) Neil Hamilton. It all seems rather complicated but actually it's fairly simple – this is about different factions trying to seize their chance to take over UKIP. As one ally of Farage told us: "This is a battle for the party."
So who's the next UKIP leader likely to be?
Party insiders and bookies are pretty sure that Diane James will be the next leader. Unlike the other candidates, you might actually have heard of her – she's an MEP for South East England, came a close second in the 2013 Eastleigh parliamentary by-election, and is a regular on the likes of Question Time.
She's up against MEP Bill Etheridge, councillor Lisa Duffy, and activists Elizabeth Jones and Phillip Broughton. MEP Jonathan Arnott was also in the race but he quit last week. "Diane will win it by a country mile," one party source said. But her team are more cautious, dismissing claims that she's the favourite. "We're not taking anything for granted," an ally said.
I haven't heard much about Diane James' campaign.
That's because she's been on holiday in France and hasn't got involved in any of the party hustings. She handed in her nomination papers pretty close to the deadline (though at least she wasn't late like Woolfe) – which prompted some speculation that she doesn't really want the job. "I don't think her heart's really in it," one party insider said.
But her allies insist that's "nonsense" and say she's reaching out to UKIP voters in her own way. They reckon the hustings – which involve candidates taking turns to answer questions – wouldn't allow James to engage with members like she can when she's holding meetings on her own, such as in Eastleigh, in Hampshire, on Thursday.
Also, unlike her rivals, she hasn't yet courted the media in this campaign. Lisa Duffy – who was virtually unknown outside the party until Suzanne Evans endorsed her – has stolen the limelight in Westminster by holding a series of press conferences. James' camp told us they don't believe such an approach is necessary. "We're talking about an electorate of 40,000 people," one ally said.
So why are some people so convinced James will win?
Aha. Now we get to the nub of it. Party insiders think James will win because, as one put it, she's the "last of the Faragists". There are big splits in UKIP between supporters of Farage and non-supporters who effectively want to reboot the party and start again. Team Farage, which includes Diane James, Steven Woolfe, Nathan Gill (more on that later, UKIP fans!), and outspoken donor Arron Banks, reckon the party's ruling national executive committee (NEC) is dominated by anti-Faragists.
Now this matters because the NEC makes a lot of key decisions about the party – like, for example, whether someone should be able to stand as a candidate if their papers are late. Anyway, it's UKIP members who will vote in the leadership election and most of them are thought to be pretty pro-Farage. That's why people think James has got the edge. "The party membership is so pro the Faragists, it really isn’t a contest – even though it might look like that," a party source said.
Ah OK so all this is basically a battle between Team Farage and Team, erm, Not-Farage?
Pretty much. Although the anti-Farage wing is quite mixed – the party's sole MP Douglas Carswell, Suzanne Evans, Lisa Duffy, and Neil Hamilton to name a few – they're now coming together to try to stop allies of the former leader taking hold of the party.
Their fear is that if James becomes leader, she will drive through an overhaul of the party that will see the anti-Farage NEC disbanded and a new structure put in place. Farage has made no secret that he wants UKIP to emulate Italy's Five Star Movement party – which allows its members to vote on policies and ideas online – in a bid to attract younger voters. Getting rid of the NEC would mean opponents of Farage would have less power than they do now.
So what's all this got to do with UKIP in Wales then?
Again, the chaos in Welsh UKIP is actually a battle for the soul of the party. UKIP got a record seven Welsh assembly members elected in May, including Nathan Gill, who's been the party's leader in Wales since 2014 and also serves as an MEP.
Now another of these assembly members is Neil Hamilton, the former Tory MP and TV game show contender, who promptly got himself elected as UKIP's group leader in Wales. (That's a different post to UKIP *leader* in Wales, which was a position appointed by Farage.)
Anyway, it's fair to say Gill and Hamilton aren't great friends. Gill came under massive pressure from Hamilton to quit his MEP job and focus on his assembly job. But he refused – and last week quit the UKIP group in Wales to sit as an independent assembly member. For now, he still remains a UKIP MEP and party leader in Wales.
Friends of Gill say this was never about a complaint over "double jobbing" but about trying to expunge a close ally of Farage from the top of the party. It's worth noting that Gill also chaired the (brief) leadership campaign of Farage's friend Steven Woolfe.
"Hamilton wants to be leader in Wales and he'll do everything he can to topple Nathan," one source in Wales told us. "Ultimately this is about a bunch of ex-Tories [Hamilton, Carswell] wanting to take over UKIP."
Hang on, wasn't there supposed to be an extraordinary general meeting (EGM) to protest against Steven Woolfe being left off the ballot?
Yep, and not just that – the EGM is aimed at abolishing the NEC altogether. Many UKIP members were furious at the committee's decision to exclude Woolfe from the race and want to find a way to get rid of them once and for all. Farage himself has branded most NEC members "total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksack".
Holding such a meeting requires the support of 20% of UKIP branches. One Farage ally told BuzzFeed News they have the numbers but want to get even more so that "the hostile NEC can't reject it on a technicality". Either way, the rules are so complicated that an EGM is now highly unlikely to happen before the new leader is announced.
This is all getting a bit messy. Is Farage likely to come back and ride to the rescue?
Well, it wouldn't be the first time Farage had unresigned. But friends say he's unlikely to return within the next 12 months, not least because he's apparently in negotiations with a national newspaper for a well-paid column. He's also in dire need of a break, allies say, after a long and gruelling EU referendum campaign.
One source told us that rather than coming back to the stage, Farage is staying behind the scenes of Diane James' campaign. "She's only standing because Farage said to her, 'We need a dog in the fight,'" they said. But a source close to James said she would never take orders and is entirely her own woman.
Right, so the long and short is UKIP's being torn apart by infighting in the wake of Farage's exit. Why does it matter?
UKIP seem to be missing a huge opportunity in British politics while they fight among themselves. They've just achieved their life's work – setting Britain on the path to leave the EU – and yet a recent poll put them at just 6% of public support, lower than the Liberal Democrats.
UKIP's leadership candidates have all said they want more MPs in the House of Commons and have pledged to reach out to disaffected voters in Labour's heartlands. And yet while Labour continues to implode, UKIP is failing to seize its chance. Now is their moment to unite, sort themselves out, and redefine the party. Unfortunately they're too busy attacking each other.