26 Sep 2014

Are Nigel Farage and Ukip divided over air strikes?

It’s a sign perhaps of how seriously Ukip is now being taken as a heavyweight political party, that their policies are being examined significantly for the first time.

Ukip is holding its autumn conference in Doncaster, actually in the parliamentary seat held by the Labour chief whip Rose Winterton, and right next door to the Doncaster seat held by Ed Miliband. And that, we’re told by the Ukip, symbolises the threat that Ukip now poses to the Labour party as well as the Conservatives.

Being here feels a bit strange when the big political event of the day is the Commons vote on air-strikes against Isis in Iraq, to be followed no doubt, by the air-strikes themselves.

It’s an issue which badly divides Ukip, even more than it does the other main parties. Mr Farage appeared to set out his party’s opposition on the BBC Today programme today.

“I’d vote against,” Farage declared. “I don’t see that us just playing catch-up with the Americans and launching a bombing raid is actually going to work.

“I suspect that it will kill a lot of civilians, which a few weeks down the road will lead us to wonder why we started this. I also don’t believe it when the prime minister says it’ll make the streets of Britain safer – I suspect the very opposite may be true.”

Day One - UKIP Holds Its Annual Party Conference

But that line clearly hadn’t been communicated to his senior party  colleagues. The Ukip Deputy Chair Suzanne Evans – recently appointed by Farage – said this morning that the policy towards Isis had changed once they started beheading hostages. When it was pointed out that this didn’t chime with what Nigel Farage was saying, Ms Evans said: “Oh, I haven’t caught up with that.”

It’s clear the issue has not been discussed at the higher echelons of the party, or a line agreed, which seems extraordinary when it’s been clear for weeks that the question would come up.

Suzanne Evans was determined to stick to her guns when I interested her later.  Two leading MEPs who are also leading Ukip spokesmen both suggested Ukip should consider supporting action in the light of events. West Midlands MEP Jim Carver was all for “surgical strikes”.  Indeed, I suspect that if a vote was taken among what amounts to a Ukip’s “shadow cabinet”, then Farage might be outvoted.

In fairness, other Ukip bigwigs such as Roger Helmer and Neil Hamilton have told me that they  back the Farage line.

The episode illustrates several things about Ukip these days. First, the rather disorganised nature of the party. Second, the tendency of Nigel Farage to shoot from the hip on policy, and consult his colleagues later. And third, the fact that his colleagues haven’t all fallen into line, and are willing to mutter publicly against him, suggests Farage may not have the grip on his party that he once had.

The former Tory MP Douglas Carswell has taken a break from campaigning in Clacton to come and speak here. The big question is whether other MPs are about to defect, perhaps even Labour MPs.  And if so, who?

The name mentioned most often is Philip Hollobone, the Conservative MP for Kettering. Mr Hollobone has the distinction of also being a Kettering councillor, and yet he employs no parliamentary staff. He manages to respond to all his constituents on his own, typing his own letters and so on.

At the last election Ukip didn’t field a candidate against Mr Hollobone, and the MP stood on a kind of joint ticket.

The local Ukip chairman Jonathan Bullock admits he’s been trying to persuade Hollobone to defect – the two  men are fellow councillors on Kettering council. Bullock, who himself defected from the Conservatives, estimates the chances of Hollobone standing for Ukip next May are “evens”. And Ukip have delayed picking their own candidate in Kettering in order for Hollobone to make his mind up.

Another extra twist is that Hollobone went to the same school as Nigel Farage – Dulwich College – and at the same time.  So any operation to lure him in would be conducted by the Ukip leader personally.

However, Mr Hollobone has told his local newspaper that he’s not defecting. But then he wouldn’t say that, wouldn’t he?

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