TORQUAY, England—At the end of a long day at the vanguard of the battle for Brexit, a group of senior politicians from the U.K. Independence Party slumped into comfortable chairs in the bar of the conference hotel.
Midnight was approaching and the men were in reflective mood, one of them pointed out that sitting around this small table at The Grand Hotel on the Torquay seafront were the last two UKIP leaders and the last three chairmen of the party.
A new leader had been elected earlier in the day, it was a shock win for Henry Bolton, a former military intelligence officer and conflict zone consultant. Party insiders said members had largely ignored the fiercely fought Twitter and Facebook battle for the leadership and opted for the little-known Bolton on the strength of his ex-services CV, which was included in a party newsletter and sent out to every voter in the post.
Steve Crowther, the interim leader until Bolton’s election, suggested that the party was about to get a lot “more militaristic.”
Paul Nuttall, who was the leader before Crowther, saw the opportunity for a gibe about his farewell speech to the conference given earlier that day. Crowther had riled up the audience with a rousing call and response routine.
In Nuttall’s re-telling it took on a more sinister air: Do you want to end freedom of movement? “Yaaaah!” he called, raising his right arm in a Roman salute. Do you want to leave the E.U. now? “Yaaaaah!” he yelled, raising the arm again. Do you want to take back control of our border? “Yaaaaah!” and he raised the arm a third time.
The forthright language on display back at the unofficial conference hotel was hardly surprising. On stage, Crowther had told the cheering crowd that political correctness was out of hand and that people should be free to masquerade in blackface, debate views on homosexuality, or cross-dress without fear of committing a “thought crime.”
The men, who had sat down at the table opposite while I was enjoying a ham and piccalilli sandwich, chuckled before returning to the difficult task of taking on the party leadership. UKIP has now had five leaders since last year. Paul Oakden, the party chairman, muttered that the leader always got the blame.
Nuttall had overseen a dramatic loss of UKIP’s vote share down from 12.6 percent in 2015 to just 1.8 percent in 2017, but it would be harsh to attribute that to his leadership. In truth, the Conservatives had succeeded, at least temporarily, in making themselves the party of Brexit, thus stealing back voters who had leant their support to UKIP.
Nuttall clearly feels his critics believe Nigel Farage would have done a better job in keeping hold of that support. "It was all Nigel this, Nigel that. It makes me want to puke in my shoes," he said.
Bolton gave his first speech as leader on Saturday afternoon, his first concrete proposals were to introduce new professional administrative and logistical functions including an internal communications manager. He also said he would be touring the country to canvass policy proposals and new ideas. “God help me,” he added.
Keeping the party in line has always been one of UKIP’s greatest challenges. David Coburn, the leader of UKIP Scotland, told The Daily Beast that he was hopeful someone with experience trying to instill order in war zones might have a chance. “This is probably harder—it’s probably easier to deal with Afghan warlords,” he said.
Farage, for the most part, didn’t bother enforcing order, preferring to laugh off indiscretions by people in the purple and yellow of UKIP. He did, however, introduce a rule banning former members of the far-right British National Party from joining UKIP.
There are still some offensive groups operating at the UKIP conference, however. In 2015, UKIP officials were forced to distance themselves from Christian Soldiers of UKIP when an article described gay people as “depraved.”
A group with a banner reading “Christian Soldiers in UKIP” had a stall in the conference hall this year. One of their pamphlets declared the European trading bloc to be unholy “The Godlessness of the Single Market,” another argued that electric cars would never work because it was impossible to design batteries that would last long enough: “Miracles do not happen (at least in technology).”
But the bulk of their literature focused on traditional marriage and campaigns against “promoting” homosexuality, several other stalls in the small row of independent groups made similar points.
Flo Lewis who was working the “LGBT* in UKIP” stand, by contrast, said party elders had been very welcoming, coming up to them and checking that they were doing alright. She conceded that not all of the UKIP members had been so open. “We’ve had some exchanges,” she said. “We’re very tolerant and try to understand people’s concerns. They like to portray us as militant ones but we’re not.”
The internal wrangles showed no sign of abating when the new leader was appointed. Bolton had warned during the campaign that voting for Anne Marie Waters would risk turning UKIP into the U.K. Nazi Party. He did not back away from those words in the aftermath of his victory, and Farage called for Waters to quit the party immediately.
Brian Silvester, who was a UKIP councilor in Cheshire until 2015, stormed out of the conference in disgust. “On way home. Can't sit in conference where the leader calls me a Nazi,” he wrote.
Waters, who helped set up the anti-Islamic groups Pegida UK and Sharia Watch, responded to her second-place finish by writing on Twitter “Jihad 1, Truth 0.” She denied that she and her supporters, who make up a fifth of the party, are fascists. “During WWII, Islamic leaders colluded with Hitler to annihilate the Jews. The truth is still true, and I will never ever be a Nazi,” she wrote.
As well as the ideological difficulties and occasionally stubborn and contrary members, the party’s lack of funds means the few hardworking staffers don't have the tools or manpower to try and keep order.
When the leadership candidates were waiting to hear who had won on Friday, they were shepherded upstairs in the conference center to wait in a corridor. It was the corridor shared by the media room, which left the confused and nervous candidates awkwardly trying to fend off questions from the international press pack and national broadcasters while they waited for the most important result of their political careers.
“This is so badly organized,” scowled one of the organizers. “I'm really annoyed.”
A few hours earlier, just before the interim leader delivered Friday’s barnstorming speech that apparently reminded Nuttall so much of a 1930s’ military parade, the master of ceremonies on stage was looking around the hall in confusion.
He peered out into the darkness and said meekly: “Steve, aren’t you coming on?”
A voice from the back of the hall cried out: “Yes, I am. You’re supposed to introduce me!”