How does Nuttall save his party from irrelevance?
UKIP was very good for Brexit: if the party had never been created, Britain would almost certainly still be a member of the European Union.* Brexit, by contrast, has been disastrous for UKIP. Stripped of their two greatest assets – their mission and by far their most effective leader – UKIP has struggled since last July to find a purpose or a direction. Compounded by internal divisions, the estrangement of their major funder, and a gaffe-prone leadership, you might have expected that the inevitable result would be a major hit to their polling. In fact, it’s not quite as simple as that.
During the referendum campaign, UKIP was consistently polling in the mid- to upper-teens (with the exception of Mori), peaking at a 20% share reported by YouGov on 26 April 2016. Perhaps not coincidentally, that poll also reported the lowest Con share this parliament (30%) and the joint-biggest Lab lead (3%).
Immediately after their crowning triumph on 23 June last year, UKIP suffered an immediate drop in their support. In the month before the referendum, UKIP averaged 16.7%. That dropped to just 13.0% in July but by February 2017, the monthly average was still 12.6%: near enough the same given the different pollsters and methodologies. Since then, however, UKIP’s difficulties – exemplified by Nuttall’s difficult by-election campaign in Stoke Central – might finally have caught up with them.
The 6% that Mori reported this week is, on the face of it, pretty awful but in fact Mori have published very low scores for UKIP for some months: they returned 6% in August and October 2016, and January 2017 as well. Even so, the most rosy interpretation is that the party’s treading water. Unfortunately, that seems less likely when set against the other polls this week: the first single-digit UKIP score reported by YouGov since February 2013 (which also reported UKIP back behind the Lib Dems), and the joint-lowest share with ICM since 2015.
That polling data is backed up in real votes too. UKIP has never been good at by-elections or local elections (and, to be fair, focussing on these was never intrinsic to the party’s mission in a way that it is for, say, the Lib Dems). Even so, this week’s by-elections saw UKIP drop two-thirds of their share in two of the four elections, poll only 5% in another and not contest the fourth – and while they may have been unusually poor results even by UKIP’s standards, they weren’t that atypical of recent weeks.
Where is this pointing? In the first instance, UKIP’s recent decline seems to have been good for the Tories. While the hackneyed cliché of UKIP as Tories-on-holiday was at best a gross simplification, there is a definite mirror to the graph of the Con and UKIP lines this parliament. So while UKIP’s support overall might be a lot more diverse than ex-Con, the movement that’s gone to and from it could well be primarily among Con-sympathetic voters. Certainly, current polling indicates that the great majority of UKIP lost support is to the Conservatives. Hence why UKIP’s March decline has propelled the Tories up into the mid-40s.
(We should, as an aside, note just how extraordinary that Con figure is, even before the context of fiscal restraint, botched budget PR and a difficult Brexit process is taken into account. The 44% that ICM and YouGov reported is a higher share of the GB electorate than Margaret Thatcher won in 1983).
All of which augers very ill for UKIP’s prospects in May. 2013 marked UKIP’s breakthrough in council elections, where they finished third in the national vote and returned a net gain of 139 seats. In many cases, local government hasn’t been a happy experience for the party adding to the problems at a national level. The likely result is a loss of a great many of these seats. The only saving grace for UKIP is that the losses probably won’t receive much coverage: the top-line political reporting will focus on Labour’s performance.
That, however, should be scant consolation. It is too soon to declare UKIP to be in a death-spiral. Political parties are resilient things and it takes a lot to kill them off. UKIP still has issues it can make its own – withdrawal from the ECHR, for example – and of course, the government could yet hand it a reprieve depending on what deal it strikes to leave the EU. Immigration also still has the capacity to attract voters to UKIP, though a hard Brexit and an associated economic downturn would likely reduce numbers. Indeed, short of a rejuvenating Soft Brexit, it’s hard to see the other parties consistently allowing UKIP enough space to thrive on domestic policy. Through the first decade of this century, UKIP tended to poll 2-3%. Given their failure to grasp their opportunities since last July, it’s not unreasonable to think that before long they might be back there.
* As with all alternate histories, it’s impossible to know what would have happened had Eurosceptic activists and voters remained with the main parties. The Conservative Party in particular would have been a different beast, with possible meaningful consequences from the 2005 leadership election onwards. Similarly, the 2010 election wouldn’t take much tipping to produce a different outcome and – consequently – a very different future for the UK. That said, even with additional Eurosceptic agitation within the Conservatives, it’s unlikely that an outright Leaver would have been elected leader before 2015, and then only in opposition. The best (for Leavers) that might have happened is some analogue to reality, with an In/Out referendum promised in order to resolve internal tensions rather than in response to the external threat posed by UKIP. More likely is that divisions over Europe would have so split the party that irrespective of who led it, the Tories would have returned to opposition and, hence, be incapable of implementing any policy. And even if the Tories were in government and did grant a referendum, Leave would have gone into the vote without the nucleus that UKIP in reality provided, making it much more likely that Remain would have won.