UKIP conference: Party seeks new role

London: After the highs of Brexit, the eurosceptic UK Independence Party (UKIP) approaches its spring conference suffering from an existential hangover.
Campaigning against Europe and mass immigration, UKIP has been gripped by infighting and a succession crisis since charismatic leader Nigel Farage stepped down last year, just as the party was at the pinnacle of success.
UKIP is gathering the troops again for Friday’s conference in Bolton, a former textile powerhouse in northern England, where it hopes to prime supporters to topple the Labour Party in Britain’s post-industrial heartlands.
A leading voice in the intense referendum debate, the party capped a perfect first half to 2016 when Britain voted on June 23 to leave the EU, achieving the core goal behind its 1993 creation.
But after realising its raison d’etre, the party descended into squabbling and chaos as it attempted to plot a new course with a new leader after Farage’s departure.
He was initially replaced by European MP Diane James, but she stepped down in October, just 18 days after winning the leadership vote, leading to Farage’s return as interim leader.
“I have come to the conclusion that UKIP is ungovernable without Nigel Farage leading it and the referendum cause to unite it,” one-time leadership favourite Steven Woolfe lamented on quitting the party in October.
“The party is riddled with infighting, proxy wars between rival camps.”
Paul Nuttall, a former deputy chief of the party, was finally elected at the end of November and has since sought to redefine the party’s objectives.
The rise of populist parties in Europe and the looming negotiations with the EU to set the terms of the break-up give the party an opportunity, according to experts.
“If the government moves towards a ‘soft’ Brexit which permits high immigration, UKIP can accuse the government of ‘selling out’ to business interests,” Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London, said.
The party therefore has a role in pushing Prime Minister Theresa May to demand “complete immigration control” during negotiations with Brussels.
The party received the third highest number of votes in the 2015 general election, and new leader Nuttall made clear on becoming leader that his main focus was on exploiting deep divisions within Labour to push it out of its strongholds.
“I want to replace the Labour Party and make UKIP the voice of patriotic Britain,” Nuttall said in his acceptance speech.
Kaufmann believes the tactic has only mixed chances of success.
— AFP