In its 25th birthday year, UKIP is coming out the other side of a quarter-life crisis.
Currently, it seems to be both an absurd and inconsequential fringe group, and partly responsible for Brexit, the meta-cluster-fuck consuming everything in British politics. Leave.EU founder and former UKIP donor Aaron Banks has been encouraging UKIP members to infiltrate the Tories and push for a hard Brexit, while some Tories are turning the other way in disgust at Theresa May's negotiations. However, the party of Brexit needs more than Brexit.
So how does a party with an almost millenarian sense of purpose deal with its day-to-day irrelevance? Under Gerrard Batten, its sixth leader in two years, the answer has been to flirt with the far-right and to "go big" on Islamophobia, something that Nigel Farage, for all his racist dog-whistles, never made a huge deal out of.
At the party's conference, which took place in Birmingham last week, it was only a procedural technicality that stopped the party discussing whether to allow former EDL leader Tommy Robinson to join – something Batten is keen on. Nigel Farage – who plays the politics of respectability, and possibly fears the addition of an ego as big as his own in the party – is upset by the prospect. Weirdly, he has no such problems in praising figures such as Hungarian far-right Viktor Orbán, or Germany's AfD party.
Batten has his own double standard, telling the conference: "Don't waste your time on joining pressure groups. They will only divert effort and attention away from electioneering and they will achieve nothing. Only an electoral threat at the ballot box can make a difference." This is despite his attendance at a demonstration held by the far-right Democratic Football Lads Alliance in Sunderland the previous weekend, which had descended into scuffles between protesters and police.
The party's shift to the right was made all the more explicit with a policy in their new interim manifesto, calling for "prisons exclusively for Islamic prisoners who promote extremism or try to convert non-Islamic prisoners", which has already been dubbed "Muslim only prisons".
But yeah, it would be a real shame for Tommy Robinson to join the party and make it newly disreputable.
Nige may be going out on a limb when it comes to the former EDL boss, judging by the warm applause when he was mentioned in a video presentation by Lord Pearson, a major Robinson backer. More evidence of support for the two-time convicted contempt offender was the guy I spoke to who was wearing a T-shirt bearing the words "FREE TOMMY" over a pound sign that resembled the UKIP logo. It's Robinson's former BNP membership that precludes him from joining the party for now, but the question has merely been deferred.
None of which is a problem for a trio of alt-right YouTubers (they prefer "Classical Liberals") who joined the party in June. The three are Mark Meechan, AKA Count Dankula (most famous for nearly being sent to prison for teaching his dog to sieg heil as a joke); Carl Benjamin, AKA Sargon of Akkad (notable most recently for calling some of Harvey Weinstein's sexual assault victims "gold-digging whores"); and Paul Joseph Watson, editor of conspiracy website Infowars. These lifestyle-trolls are making conservatism "the new counterculture", and lending a party of geriatrics a sense of youthful vibrancy. The party that once was merely a Daily Express front page made sagging flesh now has a stake in the internet culture war.
The trio are bringing in a new crowd. Terry Allen, South East Chairman of Young Independence, told me, "The youth wing in the South East membership has gone up by 90 percent, to 300, since July." These new members seemed to have mostly stayed at home, with only the occasional PJW T-shirt-wearer visible among the walking-stick-wielding conference attendees, but it's early days, I guess.
Sargon of Akkad was grateful to "everyone who's just welcomed us into the party with open arms" in his pre-recorded video address to the UKIP conference. The welcome had opened his eyes to the fact that "UKIP is just the party of regular people, and is staffed and filled and supported by regular people – and the YouTubers, we're just guys who started YouTube channels because we were concerned about the state of the world. We're regular people too."
At the conference, regular people were everywhere. Like the regular people who were selling Nigel Farage-branded condoms, "For when you have a hard Brexit". Or the regular people who chortled along to turn-of-the-century TV personality Neil Hamilton giving his presentation, "A World Gone Mad!" – which railed against the "miasma of political correctness" and was basically a live performance of a Richard Littlejohn column.
Or, less amusingly, the regular people distributing virulently homophobic literature, leaflets about "the transgender delusion", and one explaining that environmentalists and the EU are to blame for the Grenfell Tower fire, complete with a biblical quotation ("Then he said to me, 'Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the dark, each in his room of pictures?' For they say, 'The LORD does not see us, the LORD has forsaken the land.'" Ekeziel 8:12).
Meechan had ditched his hoodie and was trussed up in a three-piece-suit. He came on stage to the sort of ironic whoops you get when internet people find themselves in the real world. An old guy sat behind me said, "Oh blimey, it's him."
Meechan's speech was much like the one he gave at Tommy Robinson's Day for Freedom event – about how he nearly got put in prison over a joke, warning that the state shouldn't overreach in that way. He added: "the dark presence of authoritarianism looming on the horizon… absolutely terrifies me". The very next speech was on law and order, about how we're not sending nearly enough people to prison. Supposed "libertarians" are allying with the hang-'em-and-flog-'em brigade. "Classical liberals" are teaming up with High Tories – Tories for whom the Tories aren't Tory enough.
This contradiction is perhaps best captured by a video of Sargon of Akkad's from June, in which he announces he's joining UKIP. As an example of the country going to hell in a handcart, he points to a story with the headline, "Drill rap gang banned from making music without police permission in legal first". "I don't give a shit about how apparently violent drill rap music is," he says "…but I tell you what I do give a fuck about, is the idea that someone has to ask the police for permission before making music… 'Oi mate, do you have a licence for that mix-tape?' Get FUCKED! I'm joining UKIP, I don't give a shit!"
Quite right, too, but is a party of bigoted curtain twitchers really going to stand up for young kids from cities who rap about stabbing each other?
I caught Meechan just after leader Gerard Batten's speech, and he told me that while he wouldn't stand as a UKIP candidate "on the grounds that they make your address public", he agreed with "Everything [Batten] said in the parts of the speech I heard, especially the freedom of speech part, the immigration policy, clean Brexit, I completely agree."
Sargon of Akkad's video set out how he saw his work in the party: "I'm going to be doing everything I can to promote the party and the shared values that we have, and to help re-establish the moral good that is our shared British identity… this is where I'm planting my Union Jack. This is where I'm saying, 'That's it; this is far enough and no further,'" he said, before ending with a Shakespearian flourish: "So come the three corners of the world in arms and we will shock them."
The YouTubers have found their natural home. This is UKIP 2.0. A shared sense of doom at perceived threats to Western civilisation will be enough to bind the vloggers with the kippers. Bigotry against Muslims and defence of an absolutist interpretation of free speech dovetail perfectly well. And if this creates a political environment which enables further discrimination against Muslims, throwing their rights under the bus? "I approve of what you say, and I will defend to the death your right to say it, sir!" Everyone's a winner, right?