As Nigel Farage paraded on stage with a “We want our country back” sign to a cacophony of whoops and cheers last week, there was no hint of the tribulations Ukip has suffered since the general election.
His enemies will have been hoping that Ukip’s turmoil over the summer spelled the end for Farage, when senior party figures publicly fretted he was too divisive to bring them wider success and some even called for him to go.
But, unluckily for them, it turns out the Ukip leader is back with a spring in his step for the political fight of his life – to take Britain out of the European Union. Friends describe his mood as “never better” after a summer of fishing and a break from the cameras. “The EU referendum and fallout from the general election has given Farage something of a lifeboat after what was a disappointing election result for Ukip,” said Matthew Goodwin, a Kent University professor who is soon to publish a book about the campaign. “It allows him to distract the activists from the fact that ultimately they failed to overcome first-past-the-post.”
Ukip’s conference will open on Friday in Doncaster with sessions on the migrant crisis, “breaking out of the straightjacket” of Brussels and the dangers of a US-EU trade deal. Turnout at the conference is down, and some ticket prices have been cut, but a Ukip spokesman put this down to activists getting the chance to see Farage all over the country in the coming months at his sold-out “no to EU” tour. Although Farage claims not to want to be the main figurehead for the out campaign, he has already been touring town halls to rail against the iniquities of Brussels on everything from immigration to fishing, while the pro campaign has barely got off the ground.
“For now, I think it’s 150% about the referendum for Farage,” Goodwin said. “I don’t see any real desire at the moment to invest in campaigning in Rotherham or Dudley, where Ukip – based on its results in 2014 or 2015 – could, if it was campaigning seriously, cause some real problems for Labour.”
Speaking before the conference, Farage said he thought the party would do well in next year’s elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but he added: “But that is not where my priorities lie. I am more interested in winning the referendum. I’m not deserting the party but winning the referendum is absolutely key and that’s where our energies must go.”
The easy thing for Ukip to do would be to retreat to its roots as little more than an anti-EU pressure group, after failing to translate its 4m votes into more than one MP.
With the party stagnant in the polls, it seems Ukip is only paying half-attention to the council and devolved administration elections next May, although it has high hopes for gains in Wales.
The circumstances that saw Ukip peak at 25% in the polls and win the European elections of 2014 are still there, including an intensifying migration crisis, unhappiness with Westminster politics and the fact that mainstream parties are in conflict about these challenges.
At such a time, the EU referendum offers Farage the chance to maintain some kind of grassroots momentum when it is difficult for a small party to gain attention. On his tour, Farage began by saying he wanted to run a positive campaign about the benefits of leaving Brussels, but he soon seamlessly merged this with condemnations of the “diet of lies and deceit” that Westminster peddled about the EU and dire warnings about the ways Europe’s migration crisis could affect Britain.
One of Farage’s theories is that the result of the referendum matters less for Ukip’s fortunes than the fact it is happening. The argument is that Ukip could be hugely boosted if the UK votes to stay in the EU in the same way that the SNP has only got stronger after losing the independence referendum.
Crucial to this anti-EU groundwar is the campaign being run by Ukip donor Arron Banks called The Know which claims to be non-political. The money and effort going into the Banks campaign is not to be sniffed at. The donor has an office of 60 staff in London and a call centre in Bristol and claims to be signing up 7,000 people a day, making a total of 150,000 registered supporters. Of these, he says only 45% are Ukip voters, while 28% are Tories and 19% Labour.
Banks has also just hired top Washington DC political advisory firm Goddard Gunster, which has an unrivalled record in winning referendums.
The danger, though, for Ukip is that it will end up sidelined from the media war by the larger group of Eurosceptics, some within its own party, who believe Farage too divisive to win over half of the voting population.
The rival “out” campaign, For Britain, is backed by a swath of Tory donors and MPs, a handful of Labour Eurosceptics, and Ukip’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, who has a chequered relationship with Farage and branded the leader’s comments about banning immigrants with HIV “plain wrong”.
Prominent Tory Eurosceptics regard The Know as Farage’s Trojan horse. They fear he wants it to be designated the official no campaign and then take over. On the other hand, some within Ukip harbour a theory that For Britain is a Eurosceptic-lite outfit that is suspiciously well connected to Downing Street.
“For Britain is a Westminster bubble-type group and I don’t think it has appeal to a wider population,” Banks said. “Anything seen as coming out of Westminster is pretty toxic. And what I do know is a lot of the people at Business for Britain [one of For Britain’s campaigns] have worked for No 10 and special interest groups closely linked to the Conservative party.”
The Ukip donor is not happy about Carswell’s attachment to the cross-party campaign. “Whoever Ukip decide to endorse, it will be hard for the Electoral commission to say no to that and Carswell will either have to leave or do the same … If it comes to the crunch, the whip will be removed from him or something else will happen,” he warned.
Despite its internal fractures and the challenge of getting noticed, the underlying political conditions are still ripe for Ukip to recover.
A Britain Thinks focus group in Thanet, where Farage failed to win in May, found participants thought Ukip had disappeared from the media but were still deeply dissatisfied with the nature of politics and expressed concerns about high levels of immigration, although there was overt sympathy for the Syrian refugees.
Ukip is gleeful about the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, hoping it provides an opportunity for the party in the north of England where it came second in many constituencies. Party insiders believe that though many Ukip voters may warm to Corbyn’s authentic manner, they will be horrified about his passionate defence of the benefits of immigration and view of the military.
Farage has wasted no time in projecting a metropolitan, out-of-touch image of Corbyn to his audiences, while pouring scorn on his failure to stay true to his Eurosceptic sympathies.
He told one rally: “I don’t particularly think we should hand the Falklands to Argentina. And I don’t think we should become like Costa Rica and abolish the army. And I don’t think Adams and McGuinness were honourable and noble people. So, as you see, I do have one or two disagreements with Jeremy Corbyn. And I suspect, given he is a vegetarian teetotaller, there are one or two lifestyle differences, too.
“And this afternoon, Jeremy Corbyn has completely, totally and utterly sold out. This so-called man of principle from north London has emailed every Labour MP to say whatever happens with the renegotiation, he will advocate Britain remains part of the EU.”
James Morris, the pollster at Greenberg Quinlan Rosner who worked for Labour during the election, argues Ukip will have a huge potential space to flourish if Labour fail to reconnect with working class voters under Corbyn – but only if they can “reduce the taboo on voting for them”.
“Ukip have a version of the problem Labour had at the last election; popular policies don’t necessarily make you a popular party,” he said. “About 50% of people agreed with what Farage said about immigrants with HIV, while 34% did not. That should have helped grow their vote but, in fact, during the election, the proportion who liked Ukip didn’t budge while the proportion with negative feelings rose significantly. In focus groups, people would say things like ‘he’s just saying what we’re thinking, but he shouldn’t say it. It’s not right’.”
If such public sentiment persists by 2020 and Ukip has failed to make inroads in council elections, thoughts are likely to turn again within the party to the possibility of replacing Farage.
“Other rightwing populists have [decontaminated] by electing surprising leaders like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, and Marine Le Pen’s jettisoning of her father in France,” said Morris. “Farage can’t do that break out thing any more – but can anyone else?”
This article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 25th September 2015 07.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010