They have a new leader, but do they have a new purpose? RICHARD PORRITT went behind enemy lines at the UKIP conference and found a party on the brink.
It’s Friday morning in Torquay. Weekenders are arriving at hotels as the sun struggles to dislodge the cloud. I spot not one black or Asian face. This is Britain locked in the 1950s. Amid Torquay’s yesteryear atmosphere, a steady stream of gloomy men, all in their 50s or 60s, are trudging up the hill from the seafront to the exotically named Riviera Centre. ‘You look fed up,’ I say to one. ‘Is UKIP conference really that bad?’ ‘This might be the last one I come to if Anne Marie wins,’ he replies. As conference kicks off Anne Marie Waters is the favourite to succeed Paul Nuttall. It seems to the delegates arriving that the anti-Islamic former Leftie who helped set up the UK branch of far-right group Pegida and her band of followers are about to grasp control. And they are not happy. Waters is extreme even for UKIP. She has called Islam ‘evil’ and is a pal of English Defence League founder and sunbed shop owner Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon (AKA Tommy Robinson). Before the conference, there had been much speculation about an infiltration of the party by their supporters. But here, there is no sign of shaved heads, bulldog tattoos and the ‘casual’ clothing uniform that normally mark out the EDL and their ilk. Indeed, inside the hall a scan of the crowd reveals it is overwhelmingly male, white, middle-aged and kitted out in brown corduroy trousers and tweed – UKIP attachment to gamekeeper chic seems to have survived the downfall of Nuttall. I can’t find one delegate who voted for Waters, but there is much despondency that she might win. As the day wears on, and dull anti-EU speech after dull anti-EU speech rolls by, the mood starts to lift. The crowd are chatting among themselves and they are coming to a welcome conclusion: if no-one here voted for Waters surely she can’t win. The whispers on the floor are that Peter Whittle has won. A tentative relief is palpable. But when the results are read out he has fallen well short, there is a collective gasp, with those present bracing themselves for a Waters’ victory. When her second place is announced, the place erupts. She got more than 2,500 votes, but many of those are thought to have been from new members who joined just to back her. So UKIP voted against a dramatic change. Waters really would have been a totally new figure in British politics, transforming UKIP from its anti-EU roots into an anti-Islamic party. So just what have they voted for? Having spent a day listening to their conference speeches, the answer is clear. The rank and file just want to keep banging on about Brexit. They fear change and don’t want a different issue. They want the status quo. And with their new leader they have it. Henry Bolton is middle-aged, white and male. Perfect. And he was Nigel Farage’s choice. Hugh Moelwyn Hughes is a founding member of UKIP. He is sporting a red cord suit and can’t keep the joy from his face. ‘Henry is the most impressive leader we have ever had,’ he tells me. ‘I was dreadfully worried about what might have happened – splits, the end of the party. But now I think we can really move forward and address the big issues still facing us.’ Waters would have ruined this cosy gentlemen’s club – that is what UKIP has become, and perhaps always was: men with the best years of their lives behind them, moaning about foreigners. For so long they have battled the EU they can’t imagine doing anything else. If Waters had won, some would have drifted away while others would have regrouped and rebranded so they could continue whining about Europe. Peter Reeve, a former UKIP local communities spokesman sums it up: ‘We will remain about Brexit – no doubt. We are the only party truly committed to it and because of that this might be the most important period in our history. We are the only ones truly talking this country up.’ Within an hour of Bolton’s election the media are on planes, trains and in cars back to London. And the majority of the UKIP delegates have left the conference venue as well, back to the assorted hotel bars and restaurants across Torquay, the home of Basil Fawlty and perhaps the most famous European immigrant of all, Manuel. In The Derwent – apparently UKIP’s hotel of choice – my attempts to join two separate groups for a chat over dinner are politely declined. I watch from a distance though as waiters, mainly from Eastern Europe and no doubt worried about their future post-Brexit, serve the groups. They chat, laugh and joke with hotel staff. There is no animosity towards them at all, not even a Manuel joke. UKIP will go on minus the protests outside mosques that would likely have followed a Waters victory. Instead the party can continue, to the satisfaction of its members, if to a dwindling number of voters. UKIP have done their damage. Their constant carping seeped into public consciousness and played out in the Brexit vote. But now they can retire to the hotel bar, with Major, and enjoy moaning some more. The only difference now though is that fewer people are listening. Waters would have finished UKIP on the spot. Bolton will prolong it just the way the members want – the way it always was.