It is political conference season in the UK, and the United Kingdom Independence Party gets its turn this week. The party has just officially elected Diane James to lead it following the resignation of Nigel Farage, the main force behind the Leave campaign and the UKIP itself. Having succeeded in securing a referendum on British membership in the EU, and having won the referendum for a departure, the question cannot be avoided; is there a purpose for the UKIP anymore?
Sir Simon Jenkins, writing in today’s Guardian, said, “When Nigel Farage set up Ukip it was to campaign for an EU referendum. I asked him at the time what he would do if he got one: he said he would try to win it. And what would he do if he won, or if he lost? Either way, he said, my job will be done; I will go down to the pub.”
Sir Simon continued, “Ukip followed the short-lived Referendum party as essentially a single-issue party. Farage has declared that issue over. The party’s fate is now to descend into the grimy fringes of British politics, characterised by petty rivalries and personal disputes. They are held in place only by a collective unpleasantness, and hatred for some perceived foe.”
UKIPers say that there is a genuine need for them to continue The Conservative Party has a long history of betraying democratically made choices and of sharp practices when it comes to implementing deals. Prime Minister Teresa May campaigned to stay in the EU, and now, the government she leads is charged with arranging the Brexit. To make sure that the people get what they voted for, UKIP must stay active and hold Tory feet to the fire, or so the argument goes.
Were one of an anti-EU mindset, the argument to pressure the Tories is strong, and therefore, one might be of the opinion that UKIP has a place in British politics while Brexit is negotiated. Under Article 50 of the Brussels Treaty, negotiations will run for two years. Ms. May has suggested that Britain needs time to get its ducks in a row before formally pulling the Article 50 trigger. The target right now is the end of 2017 for starting the two-year clock. Even if that bleeds into 2018, by 2020, the negotiations should be wrapped up. The next general election is likely in 2020, thanks to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act. That would mean a general election fought on the terms of Brexit followed by a ratification of the final settlement by Parliament. Once that is achieved, the argument that UKIP is needed to keep the Tories honest is gone.
The belief that Ms. May and the Tories need to be watched can, therefore, justify the continued existence of the UKIP for only four more years. That presumes two things. First, it presumes that a raison d’etre that gives it a purpose beyond 2020 can not be found. Truly, the only thing uniting the English nationalists, disgruntled hard right Tories and old folks who voted to leave the EU was the desire to leave the EU. Their interests don’t seem to overlap anywhere else. Second, it assumes that the backers of some other agenda won’t try to coopt it. The fact is that it is always easier to take over an existing party (e.g., Donald Trump and the Republican Party in the US) than it is to start one afresh. Yet the brand matters, and those likely interested in taking over UKIP would be the same faces that currently hold membership in it. There is no voiceless right, and no one on the left would touch it.
And so, UKIP is likely to be gone from British politics by 2021. Unlike the defunct Social Democratic Party, UKIP achieved what it was designed to so. Pity. But that success dooms it. One expects the Tories to take up most of membership and councillors. After all, the only thing separating UKIP from the right of the Conservative Party was a willingness by the former to fight the EU from outside the circle of blue.