Remember the UK Independence party? That cheery Eurosceptic rabble led by Nigel Farage? Ever since the UK opted for Brexit, the party collapsed in on itself— consumed by self-loathing in a desperate search for purpose. While its most notable leader went off to become a transatlantic media pundit, Ukip went through a succession of abysmal leaders who have struggled to make headway. But under MEP Gerard Batten, it has quietly transformed into something deeply nasty.
What Ukip now stands for can be seen in Mr Batten’s new big-name hire. By bringing Tommy Robinson into the fold, the party’s transformation into a far-right force is complete. Mr Robinson — real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon — is a convicted criminal and former leader of the English Defence League street campaign and the UK branch of anti-Islam movement Pegida. Steve Bannon praised him as “the backbone” of Britain. Now he has a prominent role advising the Ukip leader on “rape gangs” and prison reform.
Mr Robinson’s larger platform matters because he is notably adept at two kinds of political campaigning. The first is dog-whistling on seemingly mainstream issues. He produces videos on female genital mutilation — not because he is a feminist but because it is another way of attacking Islam. He paints himself as a “martyr” for freedom of speech — not because he is interested in liberalism but because it allows him to rally against the “liberal elite”.
His other notable skill is making capital out of the establishment’s failures. For too long, mainstream politicians have skirted child sexual exploitation in towns such as Telford out of a fear of stoking tensions with certain ethnic minority communities. This allows the likes of Mr Robinson to claim he is the only one speaking the truth. Many Britons believe him too. But campaigners against sexual exploitation would do well to remember that everything for Mr Robinson is about Mr Robinson. Ukip is just another way to further promote his brand.
Under Mr Batten, Ukip has welcomed alt-right “social media activists” into the fold — including an editor at InfoWars, the conspiracy theory website. For many who served the party during the Farage era, its shift rightward into cultural issues is an unwelcome distraction from Brexit. Ukip gained 4,000 new members following the government’s Chequers compromise agreement. Now the focus will be on Mr Robinson and his views on Islam. “Despite the fact we weren’t racist, it took a hell of a fight to convince people,” says a former Ukip official. “How can we now fight those allegations off now, given Robinson’s record?”
Mr Farage too sees Mr Robinson’s appointment as a step too far. He has called for his successor Mr Batten to be fired and will be pursuing a confidence vote at the party’s ruling council. But he appears to have realised that the Ukip of his day is no more. The party has shunned its traditional anti-EU support base in England’s Home Counties, seeking to appeal to those with more malign views.
True, it might be argued that none of this matters. Ukip has almost no national influence, polling just six points in the latest opinion polls. But it is still considered to be in the mainstream of British politics, ranking just ahead of the Green party. There are also significant regional disparities in its support: Scotland may not be interested in Ukip, but it is presently polling higher than the Liberal Democrats in the Midlands and north of England.
The new Ukip also matters because the circumstances for a real comeback are present. Chaos creates opportunities for extremists and Britain could find itself on track for a very messy departure from the EU in March. If Brexit occurs haphazardly without a deal and the country plunges into a recession, the anger will be targeted at establishment politicians. Ukip, led by Mr Batten with Mr Robinson at his side, will be presented with the perfect opening for its pernicious politics. These dangers are too great to ignore.