The official designation of Vote Leave rather than Grassroots Out is a further sign of Farage's political decline
This week’s announcement by the Electoral Commission that Vote Leave has been designated as the official Leave campaign in the EU referendum debate is a huge blow to Nigel Farage and is a further sign of his political decline.
Farage is supporting the rival Grassroots Out campaign, which had been vying with Vote Leave for the right to spend up to seven million pounds and receive £600,000 of public funds as the official Leave campaign.
The decision sparked an angry response from UKIP donor Arron Banks, who said it ‘smells of political corruption’ and vowed to take legal action — which he claimed could delay the referendum until October — but then dropped his plans the next day.
It seems that Farage may have sensed that Vote Leave had the momentum, however. He had been trying to pursue a merger between the two Leave campaigns for a number of months, saying:
‘I have always wanted all on the Leave side to come together and have done my best to try and make this happen. I’ll continue to do so in the run up to the referendum to ensure the Leave side wins.’
There are presumably many in the Conservative Party who appreciate the irony of Farage preaching right-wing unity.
This is all a far cry from the early months of 2015, when Farage was at the peak of his political powers. Back then, you could barely open a newspaper or switch on the news without encountering a smug-looking Farage holding aloft a pint of beer.
UKIP had two MPs who had defected from the Conservatives and had reached 23 per cent in general election polls, with Farage predicting the party would win ‘more than three or four seats’ at the general election.
So what happened?
Firstly, and most importantly, the party woefully underachieved in May’s general election. Granted, our archaic and unfair electoral system played a part. But still, Farage failed to win a seat and the party lost one of its two MPs, leaving Douglas Carswell as their sole representative in the House of Commons.
That’s a disaster, even accounting for the unfairness of the first-past-the-post system. Farage had promised to resign as UKIP leader if he failed to get elected and duly did so … only to reverse that decision three days later, officially because the party had ‘rejected’ his resignation.
This decision established the precedent Farage’s leadership has followed ever since. Effectively, the party has become a one-man fiefdom, with Carswell effectively acting as an independent MP.
He and Farage have had numerous disagreements – including over Carswell’s support for Vote Leave, rather than Grassroots Out.
Shortly after Ukip came an extremely distant second to Labour in the December 2015 Oldham by-election, having been tipped by some to win the seat, Carswell called for Farage to stand down as leader of UKIP, with Farage responding with an aggressive call for him to ‘put up or shut up’.
Most recently, Suzanne Evans, the party’s deputy chairwoman and author of the 2015 manifesto, was suspended from the party for ‘disloyalty’. One doesn’t have to be a supporter of Evans’ politics to recognise that she is a plausible and effective political operator and a less divisive orator than Farage.
But with Farage apparently under the impression that she was part of a group planning a leadership coup, she was unceremoniously dumped. She denies any wrongdoing and has been supported by other senior UKIP figures, such as the party’s former Economics spokesman Patrick O’Flynn.
Back when the EU referendum was announced by David Cameron, many warned that the campaign would provide a platform for Farage to further increase support for UKIP. Instead, the most prominent Leave campaigners have been Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith, and Farage is receiving less media coverage than he was this time last year.
A YouGov poll carried out for The Times this week found that Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith are all more trusted on the EU than Farage.
There is a scenario in which Farage could recover some political momentum. If Britain votes narrowly to remain in the EU, the outrage and anger of thwarted eurosceptics may prompt a surge of support for the party – the ‘SNP effect’, if you will. And UKIP are likely to gain representation on the Welsh Assembly in May although, even there, they have slipped back in the polls recently.
Sooner or later, Farage will have to accept that his attempts to make UKIP a one-man operation have harmed the party; that he is too divisive a figure – both within the party and amongst the wider electorate – to significantly increase UKIP’s electoral representation.
The left cannot afford to be complacent about UKIP and its socially corrosive messages on immigration, climate change and taxation. But if Farage carries on the way he’s going, he may end up hastening the demise of UKIP for us.
Aidan Rylatt is a Politics Masters graduate and has worked in Parliament, local politics and public affairsLike this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.