Is Tommy Robinson a political martyr? Some Ukip supporters think so, and want the former English Defence League leader to be allowed to join their party. A motion set to be debated at Ukip's conference this month could now decide the issue, with the party's ruling body debating this weekend whether it should be up to its members to have the final say on whether Robinson should be welcome in Ukip's ranks.
If the ban on Robinson's membership is lifted, then the smallest fig leaf separating the party from the EDL will have finally been removed. Under Ukip's latest leader, Gerard Batten, this seems to be the direction in which the party is travelling. Batten is a man who put his name to a code of conduct calling on Muslims to sign a document promising not to carry out acts of terrorism. He has also spoken out frequently in support of Robinson. Yet Batten isn't alone in this fondness for Robinson within his party: members of Ukip’s youth wing, Young Independence, are pushing hard for Robinson to join, believing him to be in a tradition of “anti-establishment rebels” dating back to Robin Hood.
But if Robinson is allowed to join, the party will have to radically rewrite its own rule book. Ukip's membership application form states that if you have ever been a member of the BNP, British Freedom Party or English Defence League, among other far-right groups, you are not welcome. Robinson was not only a member of the BNP for a year, he was also vice-chairman of the British Freedom Party and, of course, the public face of the EDL.
Even with this obstacle in the way, though, it seems likely that Robinson will be welcomed back into the fold. The party is in full petulant toddler phase and its waning significance as a political force has left elements of its membership desperate for attention. Ukip has received a slight bounce in the polls in recent months, hitting the heady heights of six or seven per cent compared to the threes and fours it was scoring a year ago. Yet it's likely that the Brexit betrayal warnings coming from disgruntled Tories are responsible for this slight uptick in fortunes, rather than because voters are suddenly falling back in love with Ukip. Gerard Batten is cutting an increasingly bizarre figure at the top of the party; in his latest bid for media coverage this week he insisted that Brits should not join the army until the UK has left the EU, as until such a time they would be fighting under a “foreign military command”.
With Robinson on the cusp of being allowed in, it’s hard to believe that just a year ago senior members of the party were terrified that Anne Marie Waters, a political ally of Robinson, could win the leadership election. Back then, Ukip MEPs held secret meetings in the run up to vote to discuss what to do if the anti-Islam activist won the vote. A summit involving Nigel Farage and other Ukip bigwigs was penciled for the day after the result was announced, where the possibility of a breakaway party was set to be discussed. As it was, Henry Bolton emerged victorious, and Ukippers were able to rest easy that there would be no scandals from the former soldier.
Instead, under Bolton, things went from bad to worse for Ukip, a party that first started to decline after the 2015 General Election. At the time of that vote, 46,000 people were members of the self-described People’s Army. That surge coincided with an election campaign in which the EU and immigration – home territory for Ukip – were front and centre of the political discourse. While Farage made comments about migrants with HIV coming to the UK during the short campaign, much of the lead up to that vote had been about trying to soften both his and the party’s image. Appearances on Loose Women, profile interviews on ITV and the Tory defectors Douglas Carswell and Mark Reckless added a much-needed air of respectability to Ukip. Many in the party fought hard to make it palatable to both middle-England and working-class Labour-voting areas. The party secured 3.9million ballots, placing it third in popular vote terms.
The slide started with the EU referendum campaign, in which Farage and his cohorts spent as much time fighting the official Vote Leave campaign as taking on the Remainers. His detractors argue that the infamous 'Breaking Point' poster was the point where the referendum was almost lost for the Brexiteers, but it achieved his goal of having the debate focus on immigration in the run-up to the vote itself.
With the referendum won, the party has gone through a series of leaders, and in the 2017 election, where Theresa May was happy to paint herself as delivering a true Brexit, Ukip chose to focus on issues around the integration of British Muslims into society. With the vote coming in the wake of terrorist attacks in Westminster, Manchester and London Bridge, if that narrative was ever going to be electorally successful it was then. It wasn’t. Ukip’s vote fell to below 600,000. The People’s Army also disbanded, with membership now half what it was in 2015.
Despite the mass falling away of support, there was a way back for Ukip. If the party had held its nerve and not lurched to the far-right it could have hoovered up disgruntled Brexit supporters who believe the Chequers Agreement is a betrayal. Tory backbenchers constantly claiming Brexit is being sold out would be doing the recruitment on its behalf. The narrative that Farage so successfully peddled for years, that the Conservative Party is institutionally unable to deliver a Brexit that people voted for, could have been reheated and served up once again.
But not now. Letting in Robinson means the journey to the far-right and the political wilderness is complete.
Owen Bennett is the author of Following Farage: On the Trail of the People's Army