Nigel Farage's resignation appears to be permanent this time but, says Dr Dion Curry, he still casts a long shadow over UKIP's future.
As NewsThump so aptly put it
, Nigel Farage announced his annual resignation as leader of UKIP today, but there are solid reasons to think that this time, it just might stick. Not only did he say ‘I won’t be changing my mind again, I promise you’ (although almost in the same breath as he admitted he might stand for election as an MP in 2020 ‘if the terms aren’t right’ for any EU deal ), but there are also strong strategic reasons for Farage to step down. While Manfred Weber, the leader of the European People’s Party group in the European Parliament, called Farage ‘the latest coward to abandon the chaos he is responsible for
,’ it was likely a strategically judicious move.
Politically, it’s unlikely to get any better for Nigel Farage than it is right now, fresh off a startling vote for Brexit that he can take at least some credit for. Now that the vote is over and the dust has begun to settle, the thorny and less easily answered questions begin to arise about how the UK’s exit from the EU will actually come about. The wild promises made by UKIP and certain factions of the leave campaigners about reducing immigration, sticking it to Brussels bureaucrats and ‘taking back control’ now have to be met with concrete plans on Brexit, and this is an area where Brexit campaigners can’t help but let down their supporters. Already, key leave campaigners have rolled back on pledges to reduce immigration and increase funding to healthcare, and more sticking points are likely to arise as negotiations with the EU develop further.
This leaves UKIP at a strategic crossroads. While they have achieved a large part of the goal of their party – to convince the British public to steer the country out of the EU – comments that UKIP no longer has a purpose are somewhat premature. They still occupy a strategically advantageous place in the chance to influence Brexit negotiations and hold the other parties’ feet to the fire in negotiating a swift exit. Especially with the measured tone taken by many of the Brexit supporters in the Conservative ranks, UKIP could position itself as the party that is standing up for the 52% of people who voted to leave. This, importantly, includes the sizable number of Labour supporters who voted to leave, and may likewise consider voting for UKIP in the next general election. This was even noted by Farage in his resignation speech, where he said that ‘"the deeper the crisis in the Labour Party becomes ... is where our greatest potential lies". Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only MP, echoed this point on BBC Two Daily Politics: ‘There is a huge opportunity here. The cartel parties in Westminster have for years taken for granted their electorate…that’s a huge opportunity for us.’ Now that the Brexit question is ostensibly answered, UKIP could ironically take lessons from the rest of Europe and follow the route of some of the populist parties on the continent by broadening out their issue base in a way that speaks to the cultural, political and economic uncertainty that grips many people at the moment.
However, internal divisions in UKIP might yet scupper any chances for future success. The rift between Farage and Douglas Carswell is well documented, topped off by Carswell’s smiley face emoji yesterday after Farage announced his resignation. Carswell has said he will not stand for UKIP leadership, but as the party’s sole MP he can still play a large part in shaping the future direction of the party. He’s emphasised his desire for UKIP to be a positive and progressive force and may act as a kingmaker of sorts as the party looks to move forward. He has warned that UKIP must become a ‘genuine force for radical change’, but if the party resorts to ‘angry nativism’ then he has no interest in remaining part of the party. He even argued that UKIP should play no role in Brexit negotiations, going against Farage’s calls for UKIP to play some role.
As to who might lead the party, Paul Nuttall and Steven Woolfe seem to be the favourites. Nuttall especially, with his northern roots and somewhat left-leaning (for UKIP) views, could serve to lead UKIP in a direction that builds upon their past successes. When asked about a possible leadership bid, he said ‘You’ve got a Labour party that doesn’t represent that working class in the way that it used to – we can move in onto their territory. Equally if the Conservative party elects someone who isn’t a Brexiteer and begins to backslide on the renegotiation we can move in on their ground too. The future is really bright for this party.” With the two main parties in disarray, UKIP could make substantial gains from Labour voters disillusioned with Corbyn and Conservative voters unhappy with the tenor of Brexit negotiations.
And what next for Farage? He still seems perfectly content to draw a salary from the EU, as he intends to remain on as MEP. In addition to leaving the door open for future involvement in UKIP, he also said that he is ‘very keen to help the independence movements that are springing up in other parts of the European Union, because I'm certain of one thing - you haven't seen the last country that wants to leave the EU.’ With the rise of right-wing populism in France, Austria and other countries, it may end up being the man most opposed to Europe who finds the greatest space to take up a prominent role on the continent.