How do you top Brexit? Ukip starts search for a new role and new leader

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Down in the basement of the Misty Blues pub in the Wirral, Merseyside, on Thursday night, 40 men and women, most of them in their 60s, nursed drinks under the fluorescent lights and munched on ham sandwiches, chicken wings, mini-sausage rolls and cupcakes decorated with Union flags.

The meeting of Ukip’s local branch was being chaired by 63-year-old Paula Walters. She guided the group through the agenda from recent fundraising efforts to local problems raised by residents, including overgrown verges and unsightly pathways. By lobbying the Labour-run council on these kinds of problems, the party could stay in the mind of the voters between elections, Walters told the group, to appreciative nods.

Evidently a popular, motherly figure in the party, Walters’s stated intention to challenge the local Labour MP, Angela Eagle, at the next general election was also well received. Ukip came third here in 2015, but its vote was up by nearly 9%, and it was close to pipping the Tories.

But one man sitting in an alcove at the back couldn’t hold back his frustration. “What now, after the referendum, are we here to do as Ukip?” he shouted out. “We need to know that before we talk about anything else.”

Nigel Farage called 23 June – the day the UK voted to leave the European Union – Britain’s Independence Day. In the Misty Blues, free Vote Leave pens from the referendum were on offer and a rendition of God Save the Queen was performed with gusto at the end of the evening.

But Farage has now gone, mission accomplished, and as the Wirral member pointed out, where Ukip goes next is not entirely clear. A group of largely anonymous figures are vying to replace him. Some even believe it could be the end of the Kippers’ adventure in British politics. EU funding for its MEPs will obviously stop soon and the party’s finances have never been robust.

“I think they face a number of challenges and things are going to be very difficult for them to transition in a post Nigel Farage and Brexit era,” said Matthew Goodwin, associate professor at the University of Nottingham and co-author of the definitive account of Ukip, Revolt on the Right. “They clearly have some challenges around money, and the current group of leadership candidates, it could be argued, are lacking in star power and competence. So I would expect the party to struggle going forward.

“I think Theresa May will be pushing a ‘Brexit means Brexit’ line. She will be reforming immigration. And I think that much of that will appeal to a good chunk of Ukip electorate and they may well decide they want to go back to the Conservative party, which will pose a further challenge whoever succeeds Nigel Farage.”

On Thursday morning, in a dimly lit conference room in the Marriott hotel on the Embankment in London, Lisa Duffy, a councillor in Ramsey, Cambridgeshire, launched her bid to be that leader – and to prove Goodwin wrong.

As with all the five, and counting, potential candidates (the nomination process finishes on Sunday), Duffy believes that the elevation of May, who was a cautious supporter for remaining in the EU, means that the party has a role and a duty to hold the government’s feet to the fire.

Labour’s implosion, and the reluctance of many in that party, including leadership challenger Owen Smith, to accept Brexit, also suggests to them that this could be a moment of rebirth, rather than sudden irrelevance. There is particular optimism in its northern heartlands, where so many Labour voters supported Leave.

Senior Labour figures have warned for months that the Labour electorate’s breach with its leader over the referendum could mark the point at which the party collapses in the north, as it did in Scotland after the independence referendum. On Saturday Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, who is admired even among Ukip members in the Wirral, warned that Labour had to be “the English party” or nothing. For the moment, Ukip has already occupied that political space among swaths of the post-industrial working class. As Field warns, its flourishing in the future may depend on developing that identity at the expense of Labour.

With a sign behind her displaying the slogan “Real People, Real Lives, Real Change”, Duffy, a mother of six, told a small group of supporters and reporters on Thursday that Ukip could continue to connect by saying what the established view suggests is unmentionable.

“Under my leadership we will continue to insist that free movement of people from the EU ends,” she said. “Ukip forced the immigration issue to be heard. Now we need to start tackling taboo subjects like integration and shortly I’ll be laying out my thoughts on how to build a positive vision of modernised British Islam.”

Her campaign chief, former Daily Express columnist Patrick O’Flynn, said Duffy’s experience among the grassroots of the party, rather than in the upper echelon of MEPs in Brussels – from which most other candidates emanate – gave her an insight into how Ukip representatives could copy the Liberal Democrat route to power by proving themselves as councillors and local campaigners.

Duffy is being backed by Alan Bown, the former bookkeeper who has previously bankrolled Ukip with more than £2m in donations. Suzanne Evans, a rising star of Ukip, who is serving a suspension for signing a petition publicly criticising a homophobic member of the party, describes Duffy as Ukip’s Ruth Davidson, with reference to the combative Scottish Conservative leader who has done so much to swing that party’s fortunes north of the border.

But Duffy is far from being the frontrunner. The favourite is Steven Woolfe, MEP for North West England. Mixed race, brought up on a council estate in Moss Side, Manchester, by a single mother, but more recently working as a barrister for corporate giants, Woolfe has a good story to tell. An active member of the Labour club at Aberystwyth university in 1990, whose views have been heavily modified by his more recent career, he plans to make social mobility a key part of his platform. One flagship policy is the reintroduction of grammar schools, although initially only in the 50 poorest parts of the country.

But if Duffy’s weakness is her inexperience of frontline politics, Woolfe’s may be his status as the chosen candidate of the combative Ukip donor Aaron Banks, who alienated many Ukip members through his behaviour during the referendum campaign. “Banks treated Ukip people who worked with the cross-party Vote Leave group rather than his Leave.Eu terribly,” said one senior Ukip figure.

And Woolfe may not even be eligible. Under the rules every candidate must have two years of continuous membership and Woolfe allowed his to lapse while in Brussels, only rejoining two weeks ago. Critics might suggest that does not say much for his grasp of detail.

In the Wirral, many are waiting to see how the contest plays out before plumping for their choice. There are now 37,000 Ukip members and it is a first-past-the-post, one-member-one-vote system.

The other three candidates are Jonathan Arnott, former party general secretary and chess enthusiast, who is MEP for North East England; Bill Etheridge, the West Midlands MEP who once described Hitler as a “magnetic and forceful public speaker”; and Liz Jones, Ukip’s deputy chair in Lambeth, south London, who was embarrassed in 2014 when she “flipped out” and told a fellow guest on a radio show to shut up.

It might not sound like an A-list. But Debbie Caplin, 54, the Wirral branch’s treasurer, is optimistic. A smart, friendly woman who recognises the importance of immigration – “the country would collapse without it, but it needs to be controlled” – she believes Ukip’s role, particularly in the Labour heartlands, will grow, whoever takes over.

“As a party our problem is that, as soon as we got out, Nigel resigned and I wish he hadn’t,” she said. “Before Ukip I always voted Labour. It was how I was brought up. I come from a horrible area. People who had nothing. I turned to Ukip because I thought they were for the people and this country. I felt that had fallen away from Labour – and I feel that even more now.”

THE CANDIDATES

Steven Woolfe,48,a barrister. Born in Manchester, grew up on a council estate.

Lisa Duffy, 48, a councillor who was Ukip’s first mayor. Chief of staff to local MEP Patrick O’Flynn.

Jonathan Arnott, 35, MEP for the North East and a former general secretary of the party.

Bill Etheridge, 46, MEP for the West Midlands. Forced to leave the Tories after being photographed with golliwogs as he campaigned against political correctness.

Liz Jones, a solicitor specialising in family law and a member of Ukip’s ruling national executive committee.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Daniel Boffey Observer policy editor, for The Observer on Sunday 31st July 2016 00.04 Europe/London

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