Nigel Vs. Tommy: the Politics Behind UKIP's Brexit Ego-War
UKIP's former leader is unhappy that the former EDL leader might, somehow, bring the party further into disrepute.
Photo of Nigel Farage by Michael Segalov, photo of Tommy Robinson by Alex McBride Wilson
Former UKIP leader and turd that won’t flush Nigel Farage has said he is “appalled” that former-EDL leader Tommy Robinson (real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) is going to advise current UKIP leader Gerard Batten on grooming gangs and prisons.
And it is pretty appalling. Robinson’s qualifications to advise on those topics are mainly that he has spent some time inside following contempt of court accusations, having nearly collapsed the trial of a grooming gang.
His livestreams outside courts have risked letting paedophiles go free because of the risk that they posed to the fairness of the trial. They have also set the kind of mood music that leads to Home Secretary Sajid Javid feeling the need to tweet, “These sick Asian paedophiles are finally facing justice” when a Huddersfield grooming gang got sent down last month (as if he would ever make a point about the race of a white criminal).
Farage complained to Radio 4’s Today that Batten has a “sort of fixation with Tommy Robinson and discussing Islam”, and added somewhat dismissively that he was “dragging UKIP in a direction of effectively being sort of a street activist party right at the moment when we have a betrayal of Brexit going on by both the Conservative and Labour parties, where UKIP’s got potential reach out among the electorate, the highest it’s ever been.”
Farage is framing the situation as an either/or. There’s his own politics, which has no problem praising figures such as Hungarian far-right Viktor Orbán or Germany's AfD party, but which maintains a veil of by-the-book respectability. And there’s Robinson’s, with its street protests and unhinged ranting. There’s Farage enjoying his pint of real ale (ruddy good stuff), and there’s Tommy Robinson, his fans turning up to his retrial for contempt of court drinking cans of lager (dreadfully common, wouldn’t baste a turkey in it old chap).
And of course there’s a massive clash of egos, and different modes of politics: Farage with his European Parliament tirades and LBC phone-in; Robinson with Facebook livestreams and his desire to make a British version of Infowars. That is, perhaps, the biggest issue here. After all, Farage’s chief advisor used to be Raheem Kassam, former Breitbart editor and one of Robinson’s biggest backers.
What could UKIP stand to lose by associating itself with Robinson? Certainly not access to the respectable media, as Batten has been invited onto BBC broadcasts precisely because he backs Robinson. Members? It’s not clear how many will share Farage’s apparent disgust. UKIP's Lord Pearson has been openly backing Robinson for some time, and his video address to conference was received with warm applause. In any case, Robinson’s cult of personality will attract people to the party too.
Wider public support? That’s the nub of what Farage is suggesting. When Theresa May unveiled her much-hated Chequers plan for Brexit, one poll saw UKIP support surge from 3 to 8 percent. Some voters might be put off a party that is openly associated with someone who once ran a racist street gang in the form of the EDL, but whether there is as much of a contradiction as he thinks remains to be seen.
For all that he has the charisma of a divorcee accountant, Gerard Batten may be savvier than Farage gives him credit for. At UKIP's annual conference in September, he told party members, "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. Not to mention his repeated appearances on stages either with Robinson, or for his release from prison.
Using this double standard, he has managed to play to two different crowds and give the party a noxious but much needed shot in the arm.
UKIP 2.0 will manifest on the streets on the 9th of December, before Parliament is set to have its “meaningful vote” on Brexit, for what Robinson is calling “the Great Betrayal protest”. Batten told a livestream on Tommy Robinson’s Facebook page: “the referendum was just the first battle in a war, and that was a war to get Britain out of the European Union. That battle was won but we haven’t won the war yet.”
War. Betrayal. If you remember your history lessons you may notice that this sounds disconcertingly like the “stab in the back” theory. This myth wrongly suggested that the First World War was lost only because of unpatriotic “criminals” on the home front, and was popular on the right in Germany after 1918, remaining in vogue in certain circles up until 1945-ish. Presumably that resonance is, errr, entirely coincidental. It also sounds an awful lot like Farage himself. Nige also thinks there’s a “Brexit betrayal” going on, but he doesn’t think anyone should take to the streets about it.
Left-wing campaign group Another Europe Is Possible has called for a “No to Tommy Robinson, No to Brexit” counter protest on the 9th of December. With Parliament set vote against Theresa May’s wildly unpopular Brexit deal and get lost in some sort of constitutional black hole, an approach that isn’t wedded to the befuddling mess of Westminster politics might not be as stupid as it looks.