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Brexit: a political void

2018-01-20 07:18:50

With the way Brexit is going, more than ever, we need active monitoring and critical analysis of the government's performance. And, in our system there is probably no organisations better suited to these tasks than the opposition political parties.

Very obviously, our main party, Labour, is not doing terribly well and the Lib-Dems do not even register. To say they were useless would be something of a compliment.

Logically, the most obvious operation to step into the breach is Ukip, although that ship sailed a long time ago. The party is a shadow of its former self and increasingly, under the baleful tutelage of its new leader, it is said to be descending into civil war.

And now, we learn from that ever-reliable source, the Daily Mail that that party is on the brink of bankruptcy. Its recent accounts show it was 380,630 in debt before last year's election and now a group of senior party figures, led by MEPs Stuart Agnew and Bill Etheridge, are demanding radical cost-cutting to keep it afloat.

The party has been told that it needs immediately to start laying off staff and giving notice on its tenancies for office buildings. It will also have to ditch mailouts to party members, all part of "radical structural change" necessary to "save Ukip from going under".

The party has been called upon to "give immediate notice" to its chairman, national agent and spokesman whose wages they claimed make up 45 percent of Ukip's salary bill. Thus, in addition to "giving notice on all rented property", the party is being told that it needs to consider "suspending the practice of paying expenses to any senior personnel".

Furthermore, to add to the travails of the party, it faces the prospect of losing its leader. The National Executive Committee will hold a vote of confidence on Henry Bolton on Sunday - after he left his third wife, the Russian-born Smurova-Bolton, for a model less than half his age, who it emerged had posted a slew of racist messages online.

The only thing that might possibly save Bolton is the very financial crisis that is causing so many problems. The party simply can't afford another leadership contest.

Nor does there seem to be any obvious replacement. However, he is also being described by his former campaign manager as a "Walter Mitty character" who is killing off Ukip.

This Susie Govett who says of Bolton, "He's put the future of the whole party at stake at a key Brexit juncture, setting UKIP back a decade". She adds: "Now the party looks like it's full of fruitcakes and loonies like the Tories always said it was. If a party can't even govern ourselves, how can we seriously expect people to back us to govern the country?"

Interestingly, one name that does not feature in any report of a putative rescue is Nigel Farage. This is a man who used the party as a platform to bring him fame and fortune. And now he seems to have deserted the very party that has served him so well to say nothing of the cause he so publicly championed with no suggestion that he is to be part of the solution.

On the other hand, all sorts of mud seems to be floating around, if not exactly sticking, with talk of Russia, FBI investigations and much else.

Whatever one might think of Farage (and Ukip), not even his best friends would accuse him of leading a conventional lifestyle or of being surrounded by ordinary people. One member of his parliamentary group staff in Brussels, for instance, has been known for making trips to the Russian embassy in Belgium, and has been accused of orchestrating a smear campaign against a critic of the Kremlin.

This is Kevin Ellul Bonici, a native of Malta known to have a relationship with the Russian embassy. Bonici was part of a small team who worked in the administration of the secretariat office at the Farage's EFDD political group until at least 2015. Several sources said Bonici was close at that time to Farage, who relied on the core secretariat staff to help manage the EFDD.

Information about that came via the Guardian but much else has been published by a variety of sources, not a lot of it making sense. There lacks a unifying thread or anything approaching closure.

Someone who keeps an eye on such things is Greg Lance-Watkins who has posted some official papers from the US House of Representatives which adds further murk to an already murky situation but very little light.

The latest on this is Nigel Farage supposedly having been thrust into the Donald Trump Russia scandal after being accused of secretly handing data to Julian Assange, the Wikileaks founder.

Farage is said to have repeatedly met Assange in the Ecuadorian embassy and delivered him a "thumb drive" of information. It is unclear when the trips are alleged to have taken place but it appears the claim includes suggestions some visits happened before the 2016 vote.

The suggestion is that Farage was secretly passing data to the group that published hacked Democratic emails before the US election - to the benefit of Mr Trump. Unsurprisingly, Farage denies that charge, dismissing it as "yet more conspiratorial nonsense".

As to Russian links, rumours have extended to Arron Banks, with calls for an inquiry into "foreign interference".

The great danger is that rumours of Russian involvement, financial malpractice and other shady dealings will add to the strength to the case for reviewing if not Brexit itself but the conduct of the referendum. Although nothing yet has come to a head, there is every indication that such issues are going to run and run.

But whether or not this is the case, at the very least, it represents a huge distraction from the task at hand. Ukip members need desperately to be focusing on Brexit, with many good people having devoted years of service to the cause of leaving the EU. But now any utility the party ever had as a useful vehicle for addressing Brexit issues has long gone.

All of this creates a political void the like of which we have not known since the creation of Ukip. An awful lot of people no longer have a political home. And yet, as we indicated at the start of this piece, the need for a political organisation dedicated to the pursuit of Brexit has never been greater. 

How we fill that void is something we need to be thinking about, and thinking very hard indeed.