The UKIP Leadership Race Is Basically 'Britain's Next Top Villain'

UKIP is the most successful party in Britain, so now old Squid Lord has gone, there are some very big, evil boots to fill.
August 10, 2016, 1:03pm
(Photo by by: Stefan Rousseau / PA Wire)

Goodbye, squid lord. Nigel Farage, a pale thing glistening with revenge that rose up from salty and blasphemous depths to flop around against the English beaches, is gone. Steven Woolfe, his designated successor, is gone too, grabbed by a tentacle whose suckers he couldn't pull off in time to file his paperwork before the deadline.

While the Labour Party eats itself live on TV, battling against its own membership in the courts, desperately trying to avoid ever being useful to anyone, another crisis is fermenting deep in Ukip's stinking guts – one that might actually end up being more important. Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the Labour election is pretty much assured, and even some of his strongest opponents are starting to realise that they'll need to grow up and accept this fact, the really urgent question isn't whether he can win a general election, but what can be done with the resources he has.

Ukip is different: now that the party's achieved everything it ever wanted, it might be about to turn into a useless, dangling appendage off the vast carcass of British politics. It could wither away. But then, useless appendages can sometimes end up inventing new and horrifying uses for themselves.

The Ukip leadership election is a race to find the next designated villain of the Westminster panto. Everyone knows that electoral politics is spectacle, but nobody could ham it up like Ukip, the Mrs Brown's Boys of the news cycle. Farage was an expert because he knew that it's OK to be laughed at: he played the shabby antagonist, wearing ill-fitting pinstripe suits to debates, scrunching up his Play-Doh face into incredible grimaces, lounging about with a fag in one hand and a pint of foaming bog-water ale in the other.

Young people – the metropolitan liberals, people like you – they were aghast; they just couldn't understand it. A generation that had only seen the stained-wicker 70s in bits of old film felt an instinctive repugnance for the man. For a long time you couldn't turn a corner on Twitter without bumping into some hashtag gleefully ripping Farage apart; hundreds of thousands of nice caring bien-pensants dutifully lining up to call him a cockwomble. But somehow he kept on winning. It's as if people weren't paying attention. After the Brexit vote you people all took to the streets in London, waving your "Fromage not Farage" placards high. Farage is the bad guy, you screamed. It's as if you didn't realise that everyone always wants to see what happens when the bad guy wins.

The problem is that a good villain can't suddenly spring from nowhere. Britain knows Nigel Farage; over the decades we've learned to recognise the chilly drip of his ooze down the backs of our necks. The other familiar faces – Douglas Carswell, Mark Reckless, Paul Nuttall – either declined to stand or are ineligible. So who does that leave? Our current frontrunners are MEP Diane James, thought to be preferred by Nige himself; MEP Jonathan Arnott, who was endorsed by Nuttall and four of his colleagues in Brussels; and Lisa Duffy, who denied "chasing the bigot vote" and rejected comparisons to Donald Trump after she called for Muslim schools to be shut down, and can therefore be confidently described as a Trump wannabe chasing the bigot vote.

Arnott looks like the most obvious villain here, and looks do matter – he's a slightly Neanderthal creature with a face just slightly too wide for his head and an impressive line in sleazy suit jackets. He looks like someone's gormless henchman, a thug. But he's also a minor child prodigy, a Master's in mathematics who took his A-levels three years early, who represented Britain in international chess tournaments and won bronze in the world championships of something faintly off-putting called Stratego. In other words, a terrifying and tasteless dweeb.

On the other hand, there's Diane James, short-haired and sensible, light on policy but strong on grouchy reaction, like someone's nice but uncomfortably right-wing mum. In his coded endorsement for her candidacy, Farage said that Ukip "needs to be patient and play the long game, and to live without its velvet-collared, beer-drinking, cigarette-wielding cartoonist's dream". But there is no long game, not any more.

Ukip is the most successful party in Britain right now: unlike any other leader, Farage decided that he wanted something and managed to actually get it. The party did what it did by distilling down everything that was awful about life in Britain and declaring that this wasn't about Britain at all; that it was all the fault of the outsiders, the bureaucrats and the immigrants. Their only weakness was that this was a lie. Their programme is about to be implemented, and it's unlikely that anything is going to get better. Things will get worse.

So what does Ukip do now? Under Diane James, it'll be slowly absorbed into the Tory mainstream; her sensible evil will become the new common sense. She'll get everything she wants, and as she does the need for her existence will steadily shrivel into nothing. Or then there's Arnott and Duffy. A party under either of their leaderships would never be respected by the broadsheet press; it would be the bloated, overweening villain of politics. Cut loose from legitimacy, it'll stampede across the country leaving deep furrowed grub-trails in the political consciousness, barfing up misery until we're all sticky with the stuff. This isn't the option I'd prefer – when it comes to a Ukip leadership contest, it doesn't really make sense to have a preferred option – but it'll be an incredible show. The last show we ever see.


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