The Ukip-shaped challenge facing Nigel Farage and his new Brexit Party

Farage needs Ukip voters to be told that the party has changed, but he can’t be the one to tell them. 

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Ukip will go into the 2019 European parliamentary elections with the same number of MEPs that the party won in the first elections it contested, in 1999: three. This is due to a cocktail of suspensions, retirements, and defections to Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.

The split between Ukip’s current leader Gerard Batten and Nigel Farage is fundamentally that Batten’s Ukip now says explicitly what Farage’s Ukip always said implicitly. Farage’s political calculation was that an explicit message would confine Ukip to the same narrow fringe and limited electoral appeal as the BNP. His political success was in marrying the votes of the traditional far right with those of the people who broadly held the same political positions as most BNP voters, but were opposed to the explicit racism of the BNP’s platform.

I wouldn’t necessarily see the 7 per cent that Ukip is currently polling at as a repudiation of that tactic or a sign that it is no longer needed: only the politically engaged are aware of the change in Ukip, and for most people voting Ukip is simply the most efficient way to signal that they want out of Europe.

That poses a challenge for Farage and the Brexit Party. He needs the support not only of the people already saying they’ll back his new party, but of those backing his old one. He needs those voters to be told that Ukip has changed, that the party is no longer the force that it was – but he can’t do that because as well as the votes of people who find this new incarnation of Ukip disrespectable, he needs the support of people who think that Gerard Batten is a stand-up guy.

Ultimately, Farage needs another political party to do the heavy lifting for him – to deliver the knockout blow to Ukip that will allow the Brexit Party to emerge as the one natural home of Leave voters. But for a variety of reasons none of the other parties have a political interest in concentrating their fire on Ukip and neither do many of his media allies. Just as Remainers may well be frustrated by the workings of the D’Hondt electoral system and the split across multiple explicitly pro-Remain parties, so, too, might Leavers.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.