Back in July, when the post-Brexit world was still fresh and new, I said that a Paul Nuttall led UKIP could become a terrifyingly large force in British politics. What UKIP has done since then has shocked everyone watching, not least myself. I don’t need to go through all of the items again – fist fights that end up with UKIP MEPs in hospital and the election of a Tory woman who quits as leader after 18 days – but they are shocking.
Two UKIP related things are now with us. One, Paul Nuttall has finally actually become the leader of UKIP. Two, UKIP are being universally written off (I admit joining in on this), the idea being that UKIP has served its purpose, has no point to it without Farage using it as a personal vehicle, and any possible short term future it may have had they wasted by self-destructing.
But I’m not so sure that UKIP has died. If Nuttall can cleanse the party of its most destructive elements – and that is a massive, massive if – then UKIP could still be a force to reckon with. As Nuttall himself has already pointed out, despite all of the mindboggling cockups since the Brexit vote, UKIP are still polling in double figures. It appears that their target audience – a bit like Trump’s – simply doesn’t mind it all.
Nuttall has also said right off the bat that he is targeting northern Labour voters as a priority. This has always been UKIP’s greatest chance of Westminster seats, not the southern Tory shires they have tried and failed to secure time and time again. One only need look at places in the north that voted Leave that are traditional Labour safe seats. They might not be safe for much longer.
If UKIP can get organised and overcome their vast internal problems, they could pose a massive risk to the Labour Party. There are many people in these constituencies that would never vote Conservative – but they might vote UKIP, if Nuttall can communicate the message effectively.
UKIP, despite all of their problems, still have a hope of political relevance for two chief reasons. One, Brexit is going to be really, really difficult and May will end up disappointing people, inevitably. UKIP can pounce on this disaffection. Two, the Labour Party is losing all relevance, more and more rapidly as well. Just like they got caught between independence and unionism in Scotland, being neither fish nor foul, they are now caught up in the wheels of the Brexit debate, being not Remainy enough for the liberals and not Eurosceptic enough for Leave voters. If UKIP seizes the moment with all of their might, those insisting its all over for them might look back at some point and wonder how they could have ever thought that was the case.
Labour led their first attack on Nuttall with charges that he would privatise the NHS if he had the chance. They will have to do a lot better than that if Nuttall manages to sort UKIP out properly.