The clue is in the name. The United Kingdom Independence Party meets for its spring conference this weekend, still flushed with success from last year’s referendum. But the party is also facing something of an existential crisis.
For the UK is on the path to ‘independence’ from Brussels, partly due to the efforts of UKIP and its occasional leader Nigel Farage. So, now it has achieved what it set out to do, does the party have a purpose any more?
Due to the unique and infrequent nature of referendums, this sort of tricky second album is a relatively new concept in British politics. It’s possible to read across from other walks of life, but the analogies aren’t perfect. Do UKIP, like Leicester City, fail to recover from the hangover of an unlikely victory and fade into competitive insignificance? Or do they take a leaf out of Donald Trump’s primary campaign book and ride the wave of surprise success to even greater electoral victories in the future?
There is an interesting political counterfactual here, which is the plight of the SNP. Following the nationalists’ referendum loss in Scotland, the nation was seized with a strange sort of emotional buyers’ remorse, leading to the Party winning nearly every Scottish seat in the subsequent general election. Electorally, losing the referendum was the best thing that could have ever happened to the SNP.
So will UKIP, who managed to win their referendum, suffer the inverse of the SNP’s political fortunes? As ever, the political landscape provides a few clues.
The current predicament of the Labour party, inevitably, offers UKIP encouragement. Due to Jeremy Corbyn’s uniquely damaging combination of wrongheadedness and incompetence, traditional Labour voters in leave-leaning towns like Barnsley or Doncaster (and perhaps Stoke) are unlikely to feel like the party is addressing the sentiments that underpinned their votes last June. Bootle-born Paul Nuttall may well appeal to these voters more than Islington vegetarian Jeremy Corbyn, although his bogus website claims about losing friends at Hillsborough may well have harmed his “man of the people” credentials.
UKIP also still has something substantial to play for, because Brexit hasn’t happened yet. When it does, anything that goes wrong can be blamed on the Government failing to fulfil the will of the people. And every diplomatic, economic or presentational setback along the way (spoiler alert: there will be loads) can be presented by UKIP as a betrayal of the 52% who voted out.
Yet to capitalise on Labour’s woes and the inevitable Brexit betrayals, UKIP needs to become an effective political party, rather than a random assortment of flag-waving oddballs who appear to despise each other.
Could this happen? Well theoretically, Leicester could still finish in the top 4 again this season. But currently, relegation is a far better bet.