23 November 2018

A party that embraces Tommy Robinson will lose its say on Brexit


If Ukip is about anything, it is ensuring the UK gets the clean Brexit the party campaigned for over 25 hard years.

At every point during that time, and particularly over the last 10 years, professional politicians and their fellow travellers in the media have attempted to destabilise it – first by accusing Ukip of being extreme, and secondly by claiming its rag-tag, snaggle-toothed amateurs just don’t understand the complexities of politics in the way that they, the establishment does.

I cannot recall how many times, mostly Conservative, politicians have condescended to us: “Well done little Ukip, you won the European Elections, let us professionals take over from here”.

And what a job they have done. We have a Prime Minister offering a deal that even some committed Brexiteers accept is worse than remaining in the EU.

So where can disillusioned and disgruntled Leave voters take their vote? Well there is always Ukip. Or, more to the point, there is the memory of it. Today there is a Ukip-shaped hole in British politics that needs to be filled, but can the party manage to fill it?

The power of Ukip before the referendum was always more existential than real. Under our electoral system it was always going to be too big a mountain to climb to win anything more than a very small handful of seats. But what it could do as it rose in the polls to 15 per cent and more was to pose a direct threat to MPs — mostly Conservatives but by no means only Conservatives. By having support that was greater than a sitting member’s majority, the party could and did apply pressure on the legacy parties.

And boy did the pressure work. It is no exaggeration to say that its victory in the European elections of 2014 and gaining a couple of by-elections panicked David Cameron into offering a referendum on EU membership, an idea he had three-line whipped against only a couple of years earlier.

Now, at a crucial juncture for Brexit, can Ukip step up and offer a means by which those unhappy with the Prime Minister’s deal apply some pressure?

It appears from the actions of its leader, Gerard Batten MEP, the answer is a resounding no.

His decision to appoint the street activist Tommy Robinson as his personal advisor on Rape Gangs and Prison Reform reads more like a script for some woke BBC Three comedy than a considered political act.

When Batten took over, the party was in a dire position, languishing at three per cent in the polls, it faced the threat of bankruptcy and even then many former members and supporters desperately wanted to believe that this Government meant to honour the referendum result. Thousands of key activists had drifted to the Tory party and others had gone back to Labour.

He took a decision that one way to build membership and party finances was to ally himself and Ukip with the Football Lads Alliance with the promise of thousands of new members and a surge of new cash. But very little happened and only a couple of hundred joined the party. What it did lead to was Batten getting involved in a free speech campaign, where he shared a stage with Robinson and others. This, in turn, led some prominent vloggers to join Ukip, but again the impact on membership was limited.

Membership and finances were rising, but slowly. The respectable donors were still staying away, and the polling numbers were hovering around four per cent.

Then came the Chequers agreement in July. A few thousand new members flooded in, taking the overall number up above 20,000 for the first time in well over a year. Polling showed that Ukip were back up to seven per cent. Things were looking up, but over the late summer, instead of opening up the party and keeping its focus on ensuring that the Brexit voted for was delivered, its leadership distracted itself by focusing on Tommy Robinson, his trial, imprisonment and subsequent release.

New members dried up and the polling numbers started to slide. The annual conference was overshadowed by an attempt to create momentum to allow Robinson into the Party, despite his historic membership of the BNP, something that is proscribed by Ukip’s rulebook. This was blocked by the then Chairman and the conference went off without incident or much coverage.

Then, in the week that the Government presented us with the Withdrawal Agreement, Batten decided to tell the party that he wants the NEC to overturn the ban and allow Robinson in.

Tory members are less than happy with May’s deal, Ukip polls at eight per cent, hundreds of new members are joining every day. What is the party doing? Talking about Tommy.

The NEC reject Batten’s idea by a margin of 11-4, pushing any discussion of the issue to beyond March 29th in order to concentrate on the Brexit chaos, and allow the party to become a home for the thousands out there so bitterly disappointed by May’s capitulation.

And what does Batten do? He responds to the NEC with two fierce fingers and appoints Robinson as a special advisor. He does this because he has seen the Robinson phenomenon, and its ability to raise funds online rapidly. Among the many objections to the appointment is a practical one: most of those funds come from the US, and therefore cannot go to a British political party.

Why does this matter? It matters because for decades the party had fought against allegations of racism, for the most part successfully. But that is an argument made almost impossible in the light of this decision.

At the precise moment when the party could pick up thousands of new supporters, its leader appoints a man who will understandably turn off middle-of-the road Brexiteers. It condemns the party to an electoral wasteland, where it cannot bring the electoral pressure to bear on the Government and opposition. Worse than that, Batten and his team are agitating for Robinson to lead on Brexit itself, not just on his specialised subjects, taking part in a Brexit rally and allowing Remain campaigners to accuse the 17.4 million of being in bed with racists.

It is a self-inflicted wound that will not only fatally damage UKIP, but also do immeasurable damage to the broader cause. Batten is wilfully tarnishing the movement for liberty, prosperity and a global Britain, into a street-fighting brawl. Remainers cannot believe their luck. And many of us cannot hide our rage.

Gawain Towler is the former Head of Communications for UKIP and the founder of CWC Strategy.