Even before the defection of Conservative MP Douglas Carswell handed UKIP its first parliamentary seat in the 2014 Rochester and Strood by-election, the party has never been a movement fully comfortable in its own skin.
Originally founded by liberal academic, Professor Alan Sked in 1991 as the Anti-Federalist League, the party soon lurched rightwards toward quasi-authoritarian policies as espoused by the British National Party and the far-right flank of the Conservatives. In 2009 grassroots favourite Nigel Farage resigned, only to be re-instated the next year, after his successor Malcolm Pearson was seen to be too close to the Tories.
More recently, the pitiful 18 day tenure of Diane James was widely speculated to be the final nail in the party’s coffin in the post-Farage era.
Instead one fistfight, an accusation of donkey sodomy, and two by-election disappointments later, scandal-plagued Paul Nuttall has the unenviable task of presiding over a demoralised and fractured movement.
Whilst the charisma and barnstorming rhetoric of his (official) predecessor may have papered over the cracks in the past, divisions amongst the party faithful are now laid bare for all to see. These can be reduced to two principle factions; those keen to moderate UKIPs hard right image with economic libertarianism, and those who feel the party is losing touch with its hardline roots on immigration and crime.
Amongst the former stand many Conservative defectors such as Douglas Carswell, Neil Hamilton, leader of UKIP in the Welsh Assembly, and former deputy leader Suzanne Evans (who served a six-month suspension on the grounds of disloyalty).
Prominent figures lined up against them include Farage disciple and Breitbart UK editor Raheem Kassam and major party donor Aaron Banks, who only on Tuesday called for Carswell to be expelled from the party.
Nuttall, who presented himself as a unity figure, is now faced with a dilemma as he looks to UKIPs future. After his election as leader he made clear his intention to target Labour’s traditional working class voters and underwent a transformation from suited MEP to flat-capped man of the people. In this he saw some success, with polls showing Labour slipping from second to third place amongst working class voters.
Nevertheless, in Stoke Central, the city dubbed ‘Brexit Capital of the UK’, he made only a two-point dent in Labour’s 39% of the vote, leading to calls from some to rethink UKIP’s electoral strategy.
Factor in the dramatic decline in Labour’s poll performances under Jeremy Corbyn over the past two years, and UKIP’s traditional appeal to white working class voters who used to form the core of Labour’s vote, and UKIP’s result in Stoke looks deeply disappointing for the Party.
Stoke clearly showed the Party has a long way to come before gaining a demographic advantage over Labour, something many suggest is at least in part due to its chequered past over NHS. With Labour’s vote dipping in some polls as low as 24% many heads are now turning instead to Prime Minister May’s ever-expanding lead which now encompasses nearly half of the electorate.
As May accumulates votes from moderates, those on the libertarian wing of UKIP must be eyeing up a significant proportion of the Conservative base who feel left behind by their new leadership.
Ex-Tories like Carswell, they suppose, could be in an ideal position to take on the Conservatives from the right, appealing to older voters’ aversion to taxation and posing a threat in areas of the South-East and South-West which have been solidly blue for generations.
With May having capitalised on the Leave voter demographic, a message instead targeted at ‘sensible’ Middle England could well catch the Conservatives off-guard as they attempt to moderate themselves to be the “Party for all of Britain.”
Conversely, the populist wing views such moderation as a distortion of true UKIP principles and favours a return to far-right stances on social issues.
The likes of Carswell and Evans would appear to be on the back foot and have long been vilified by much of the membership, who view them as ‘Tory infiltrators’. Farage, a hero to many, has frequently fought publicly with Carswell, most recently over the MP’s apparent reticence to secure him a knighthood.
Multi-millionaire Banks has also weighed in on the issue, claiming he will not continue to pour his money into the party unless Carswell is excommunicated. Banks’ money has been instrumental in the rise of UKIP, and his claim that Nuttall must “professionalize [the party] and toss out … the Tory cabal [otherwise] the party is finished” is an ultimatum that will strike fear into many UKIP members.
Whilst many take this as an inevitable sign of another rightward turn. others aren’t so certain. Losing Carswell would deny access to vital funds and influence at Westminster, which the party cannot afford to lose.
Having already secured a mandate to leave the EU, there are those who are concerned that support will begin to dwindle as voters’ previous concerns about immigration are allayed by an increasingly anti-immigrant government.
Without hard-line members, then, UKIP could quite easily transform into a major player in the Conservative-dominated South.
In the past, UKIP has proved itself to be a beast that evolves way beyond its original conception. Sceptics prophesising a return to the days of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists” may well have to eat their words.
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