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1 October 2014

Ukip’s second front against Labour could see the People’s Army split

Ukip spreading itself too thinly for the Labour vote could result in damaging splits in the People's Army.

By Owen Bennett Owen Bennett

The Ukip tanks are on the Labour lawn. Tory soldiers are deserting their posts to flock to Farage’s flag. All is well with the People’s Army, right?

Well, as an avid war historian such as the Ukip leader should know, an army is at its weakest when it overstretches itself. Sure, he may be winning the battle against the Tories, eating into their support, but can he sustain a second front against Labour at the same time?

It will be difficult. Last week’s conference in Doncaster was all about Labour. It was held in a Labour heartland, it attacked Labour for exploiting its “one-party state” status in many parts of the Midlands and the North, and it took the fight to Labour on the NHS.

But for all the urging of Labour supporters to join its ranks, the Army’s big coup was Tory MP Mark Reckless – a tax-cutting libertarian to go alongside the one they already have, Douglas Carswell.

Then there were the policy announcements. The biggest cheers were still reserved for the anti-EU and controlling immigration rhetoric.

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There were also cheers for the abolishing of inheritance tax and the reduction in the higher rate of income tax – to support “the aspirational people of Britain” said economic spokesman Patrick O’Flynn.

But alongside that was the quickly-dubbed “Wag Tax” – a 25 per cent VAT rate on “luxury items” such as expensive shoes, cars and handbags. Is this not an example of the “politics of envy”, which Labour would no doubt be accused of if it came up with such a policy?

The idea of taxing the purchases of the wealthy could have come straight out of Labour leader Michael Foot’s “longest suicide note in history” – or the 1983 general election manifesto as it is also known. Farage seemed to know nothing about it when we spoke to him in his post-speech briefing, and within 48 hours he said it would not be party policy while he remains leader.

Meanwhile, at a Ukip fringe event after on Friday lunchtime, one member was shaking his head over abolishing inheritance tax and calling for the railways to be renationalised. I’m not sure Messrs Carswell and Reckless would agree with that.

This will be the next big challenge for Farage. It is all very well issuing an open invitation to join your army, but what happens when your new recruits want to change the strategy?

Will Farage have to start instilling some much-absent discipline? Will he have to make sure people are actually “on message”? Or will he broaden out the party’s policies? Try and a create a manifesto which either takes from both the left and the right (incoherent), or moves to the centre (pointless)?

If the People’s Army continues to grow, Farage may soon be dealing with what he has spent his political life exploiting: a split party.

Owen Bennett tweets @owenjbennett