Conditions are right for an assault on Labour’s working-class support, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis
After securing their goal in winning the vote on Brexit, the leaders of the mainstream Leave campaign had the good sense to evacuate the battlefield and let someone else do the hard work of making Brexit a reality.
Nigel Farage has been forced to hang around, even though he would clearly much rather have been a full-time roadie on Donald Trump’s Make America Great Again tour.
He has instead had to babysit his party as it barred leading candidates to succeed him, elected a woman who didn’t want to be leader, drove her out after 18 days, then lost another leading contender in the Strasbourg scuffle.
In that time, its poll rating has been cut in half as Theresa May’s Conservatives have stolen Ukip’s clothes on Brexit and immigration, and the party has lost 14,000 members in the past year and a half.
But Mr Farage can finally take his holiday – to the United States, he confirmed yesterday, although without a stop to measure curtains at the British Embassy in Washington.
The party has chosen Paul Nuttall, someone who didn’t even take part in Ukip’s first abortive leadership contest and has none of the name recognition and little of the charisma of predecessor.
But Mr Nuttall has the potential to give Ukip a renewed purpose – one that should give Labour MPs sleepless nights.
The new leader has set his sights on what’s left of Labour’s northern stronghold, telling Ukip supporters that he will become the “patriotic voice of working people”. Cutting to the bone of the problem facing Jeremy Corbyn in wavering post-industrial Labour constituencies, Mr Nuttall dismissed the opposition front bench as out-of touch, metropolitan IRA sympathisers who won’t sing the national anthem and care more about climate change than cutting immigration.
Sitting MPs guarding Labour’s increasingly isolated northern outposts are worried. Mr Nuttall only needs to take a slice out of Labour’s support to effectively bar the party from power for the foreseeable future – with clear implications in Scotland if Conservative government is cemented as a foregone conclusion. Ukip came second to Labour in 40 constituencies in 2015, and analysis by the House of Commons library suggests Labour could lose 13 seats if only one in 50 of its voters switches to Ukip. That figure rises to 32 if one in 16 voters switches.
Of even greater interest to the SNP – and Scottish unionists – is Mr Nuttall’s pledge to “promote the English”. He has long been a supporter of an English parliament and will move English nationalism from the back of the smoky pub that is the Ukip platform to the front of the queue for the bar.
Arron Banks, the man who holds Ukip’s purse-strings and will remain directly involved in UK politics even if Mr Farage extends his holiday, tweeted recently that he wants to hold a referendum on “ejecting Scotland”. While Mr Corbyn’s allies talk up the prospect of a “progressive alliance” with the SNP, Ukip’s leaders are more in touch with the souring mood south of the Border.
If Mr Nuttall can turn Ukip from a social-conservatism bandwagon pulled by the single issue of Brexit into a party that reflects the broad economic alienation of working-class England, he may find a clear path ahead.
Last week’s Autumn Statement confirmed that low and middle income households aren’t going to see any improvement in their finances for another five years at least, having already felt an appalling squeeze. Coupled with the likelihood that net migration will persist in the hundreds of thousands – the Office for Budget Responsibility predicts a fall of just 80,000 by 2020 – the number of angry voters lashing out at the ballot box won’t have eased by the next election.
There is an off-the-shelf model for how the right can swallow the working-class left whole. Marine le Pen will challenge for the French presidency casting herself as precisely the kind of “patriotic voice of working people” Mr Nuttall wants to be.
Her opponent, the former prime minister Francois Fillon, chosen as the candidate for the centre-right at the weekend, leads in head-to-head polls against Ms Le Pen, but his victory relies on taking the left hostage.
In 2002, when Ms Le Pen’s father Jean Marie made a shock breakthrough into the second round of voting, trade unionists and the young held their noses and put their cross next to Jacques Chirac’s name to stop the far right gaining power.
But unlike Mr Chirac, who railed against Anglo-Saxon economic liberalism and championed the French social model, Mr Fillon’s economic programme is proudly Thatcherite. He has promised to “reboot France’s software”, and was promptly condemned by Mrs Le Pen for taking France “back to the 19th century”.
Even if Le Pen doesn’t win the French presidency, her National Front party, which hasn’t had more than its current two deputies in the National Assembly since the 1980s, could win 10 per cent of the seats in the French parliament next year and hold the balance of power.
The bar for the new Ukip leader is lower than that. Mr Nuttall will have outstripped his predecessor if he lasts three weeks in the role. He has to keep the money flowing out of Mr Banks’ pockets and secure vocal enough support from Mr Farage to keep his position safe, without being overshadowed – it was hardly a good start for photographers to turn their backs as Mr Nuttall began his victory speech so they could snap the outgoing leader taking his seat.
However, if he can turn Ukip from a party with a single purpose to one that marries working-class economic concerns with nationalism, Nuttall can give the party a new purpose – and ensure the next political decade is as unstable as the last.