The continuing saga of Henry Bolton’s notional leadership of Ukip continues to amaze and amuse and appal in equal measure. The press loves a freak show and, in the absence of anything better, Ukip is the best circus in town. You might think it odd to give so much attention to a party that won just 2 per cent of the vote in last year’s general election — but this is all about Kipperism, which is bigger than Ukip. Much of the time, it seems as though this is Ukip’s Britain. The rest of us just live in it. It amounts to the most stunning reverse takeover in modern British political history.
The party’s death throes recall David Cameron’s original description of Ukip as a collection of ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly’. If it wasn’t entirely true before — or fair — it certainly is now. The poor Kippers, of course, have never been able to catch a break since the referendum. It’s just bad luck their barrels turned out to be filled with quite so many rotten apples.
No wonder Nigel Farage swanks from studio to studio dressed, as the novelist Robert Harris winningly put it, like an Abwehr officer’s idea of an English gentleman. But then his job is done, is it not? It is hard to imagine circumstances in which Brexit could have happened without his efforts. If he had to be kept away from the official campaign, it remained the case that he was the greatest cause of the campaign happening at all. And his unofficial efforts formed the essential backdrop for the rest of the Brexit drama.
Both Labour and the Conservatives spent years saying, in effect: ‘Ukip are right, for God’s sake don’t vote for them.’ We hear your concerns on immigration, they said, hoping that voters would prefer diet restrictions to full-fat curbs on immigration. But that didn’t work. The Conservatives ended up being so terrified of Ukip that they decided to abandon the very moderation that had put them in power in the first place. Moderate Tories were told their views and their preferences didn’t matter. Obsessed by the Ukip threat on the right, the Tory party abandoned the centre. The impact on the Tory vote among the young, and in the cities, was profound.
The Ukip effect continues to shape the Tories. You could play a good game listing quotations from leading politicians and asking voters to identify which come from supposedly mainstream Tory politicians and which from the Kipper fringe. A Tory Brexit is increasingly indistinguishable from a Ukip Brexit. Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg are Kippers with Latin grammar.
The goalposts are always being moved and they only shift in one direction: to the right. What once appeared outlandish fantasy is now government policy. It is hard to think of a time when the fabled Overton Window — the permitted parameters of public discourse — was opened quite this wide. We’re getting more than Brexit: we’re leaving the single market, the one thing the British people actually liked about the European project. That so many people think this is a good idea shows just how much Ukip achieved.
So it’s a case of ‘job done: go home’ for what remains of Nigel Farage’s party (or, in his case, job done: tour America). Kipperism is a sensibility as much as it is a programme, and it continues to exert greater influence than its level of electoral support might suggest. You don’t have to vote Ukip to be a Kipper. Farage’s influence endures even as his party is diminished to rump status.
What is certain is that Brexitism cannot be appeased. Every concession, whether couched in substantive or rhetorical terms, will be met with fresh demands for more. The idea of a moderate Brexit is seen as a subversion of democracy: it cannot be hard, or fast, enough. We Remain voters are soaked in despair and even some ambivalent Leavers must wonder if the hardest Brexit possible is quite what they signed up for. And wonder if they have, if anything, out-kipped the Kippers. Even Nigel Farage said that EU nationals should not be used as bargaining chips in Brexit negotiations. When Theresa May proposed this awful idea, almost everyone in her party backed it.
It didn’t have to be like this. There was an opportunity for a more considered, more generous, more outward-looking Brexit. One in which the concerns, if not necessarily the preferences, of the 48 per cent might have received some attention and even perhaps some reassurance. But government — which is to say, Theresa May and Nick Timothy — decided otherwise. They thought it better to seek to crush, rather than accommodate, the other side. Everything else, including the Tories’ disastrous general election, stems from that.
By offering next to nothing to the 48 per cent, the Prime Minister has made herself a prisoner of the hardest Brexiteers inside and outside her own party. Not only that, those Leave votes cast with some ambivalence —as many were — have been reimagined (and spoken about) as wholehearted, enthusiastic votes for whatever variety of Brexit she comes up with. One day perhaps she will recognise this for the mistake that it is.
We have heard plenty of carping from the Conservative benches: about the spate of Ukip resignations, about the curious leader and his racist girlfriend — shambolic, yes, but does anyone remember the last Tory party conference?
Or remember the Tory party as it used to be just a few years ago? Once, the Conservatives denounced Ukip as the unacceptable face of Euroscepticism; now they dance on Ukip’s grave while carrying on with its philosophy. The Kippers have won.