Ukip has had a rough few days. After its new leader Paul Nuttall’s defeat and disappointing vote share in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, the party’s relevance has come under scrutiny.
This pressure has also opened up old wounds among the party’s internal factions. Its major donor Arron Banks has threatened to pull funding unless he is made chairman and can “purge” figures such as the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell. Banks has also warned that he will run against Carswell in his Clacton constituency. Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage is also in open civil war against Carswell – over claims that he mocked and frustrated his chance at being knighted – saying Ukip would be better off without the “Tory party posh boy” who has long been his nemesis.
There is an enduring schism in Ukip, with Farage, Banks and their supporters on one side, and Carswell, former deputy chair Suzanne Evans and MEP and ex-spin doctor Patrick O’Flynn on the other. The latter group are thought to be less right-wing and more ideologically pragmatic than the former, but the divisions are more bitter and personal than simply a policy split.
Alexandra Phillips, who was Ukip’s head of media from 2013-2016 and a close aide to Nigel Farage having worked for the party from 2009, calls these divisions that have resurfaced a “massive internal party schism”.
She believes that the “scars now run so deep” between the party’s factions that “the damage has been done”.
“It’s become a very tribal party,” Phillips tells me over the phone from Kenya. “Nigel was a very uniting factor throughout most of Ukip’s history, until during the general election, the schism happened between what you’d consider the more pragmatic, soft side of the party in the hierarchy and the more sort of rabid and right-wing side.
“And those divisions still exist today and I don’t think those wounds will ever heal. I just think they’re too deeply entrenched,” she adds. “I can’t really see any other political party where three such central figures are so demonised.”
Phillips warned that her old party could lose its political power once Britain leaves the EU and it no longer has as many elected representatives. She says Ukip is, “facing the ticking clock for how long they’re going to have their MEPs”.
She believes Nuttall, one of the party’s 21 MEPs, will maintain his position until that point – when his “relevance” as a leader will be tested.
“When that clock does run down to zero, unless Paul Nuttall has found significant donors to keep the party afloat, his own relevance will be called into question if he’s not elected,” she says. “An unemployed party leader? What would he be doing? Would he be in business, or would he go back to further education? It’s a strange set-up to have a political party with a completely unelected party leader.”
Now a Conservative and a political consultant, having left Ukip in Spring 2016 after seeing through the Brexit win, Phillips urges her former party to “do a radical rebrand”. She believes both Carswell and Banks’ ideas about direct democracy could be where Ukip’s divides can be united, calling on the party to focus on radical proposals – like members deciding policy via referendums – rather than repeating arguments about the EU, and “putting your fingers in your ears and humming” as Theresa May delivers Brexit.
“One thing I find surprising now is this narrative that seems to be discreetly emerging, which is almost willing Brexit to fail for the sake of keeping Ukip alive,” she says. “If that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, what on earth has the point of the party been for? It’s rather tragic, in fact.”
Phillips is equally cynical about Ukip’s strategy to hoover up Labour voters. “How are you going to be their voice?” she asks. “It’s all very well saying, ‘we are the party of the working class’, well, why? You can’t say because you’re working-class, you’ll never vote Conservative or you’ll never vote for Corbyn’s Labour. It’s a very lazy way of doing politics, and it never works. I think Ukip are really faced with the decision: go big or go home.”