The disastrous leadership of Henry Bolton now makes the problems we faced during the year before look like some kind of golden age. It’s become a cliché to say that UKIP is drinking in the last chance saloon – we have after all heard it time and time again – but surely, this time it is true.
The public has lost patience with us, and it’s hard to blame them. Many good members likewise have thrown in the towel in the past few months. They have spent years courageously facing hostility and often aggression defending our beliefs. Beliefs which we know are the right ones and which have transformed British politics. But when that hostility instead turns to ridicule – when, indeed you find yourself regarded as a joke, a national laughing stock – then for many, loyalty is put under an intolerable strain, and finally snaps.
As leader of the UKIP Group in the London Assembly and one of the UKIP leader’s team of spokespeople, I was one of the first to call for Bolton to resign after he’d lost the NEC vote of confidence. In such circumstances, we tend to rely on an individual’s sense of decency and self-respect to do the right thing. That such qualities are totally absent in this case has become glaringly apparent.
It has brought us to the situation where we will have to go through an EGM, an event which we as a party can ill-afford financially and around which the media will feed with relish. But it’s happening, and I urge members to go to Birmingham on Saturday week in as great a number as possible to get rid of a man who should have gone weeks ago.
For me, this current crisis has little to do with questions of morality or private lives. It has to do with the fact that the first time the public – and many of our members indeed – became aware of Henry Bolton in any meaningful sense was when his relationship with Joe Marney was splashed across the tabloids. For in the four months leading up to that, since he was elected in Bournemouth, there had been virtual radio silence.
In the week after his election, Bolton visited us at City Hall to attend a Make Votes Matter event I was hosting. From then up until now, I have had precisely two telephone conversations with him. There was virtually zero communication from our leader, something which I know has hugely frustrated other senior figures from the Deputy Leader down. There was just one meeting of our ridiculously oversized “cabinet” in the whole four month period.
Likewise there was minimal media coverage. At the very time that the betrayal of Brexit was providing us with an open political goal, our leader was hardly to be seen. And crucially, there was precisely nothing done to rebuild and develop our policy base. The importance of this cannot be overestimated, especially at a time when the very point of us as a party is being called into question.
From the moment he became leader, I had declared my loyalty to Bolton, starting with my speech at that same conference. However it became inescapable to me and others that even before the events around Christmas, the party had elected a dud.
So he must go. But what after February 17th? I’ll offer a few observations if I may, which I hope will be taken in the constructive spirit in which they’re given.
In time, there will have to be yet another leadership contest. I strongly suspect that it will be very much like last year’s, with a high number of candidates, some familiar and some whom you and I have hitherto never heard of. I would suggest that there should be a short campaign after the May elections, and not the long, drawn out affair which last year kept the party in suspended animation for the whole summer.
Secondly – and this is crucial – the vetting process must be rigorous and thorough. Henry Bolton came into the election race last year very late, unknown, but trailing a CV which he made much of at every opportunity. The fact that Sandhurst does not award BAs – he’d stated he had one – should have been discoverable with almost no effort. Similarly, the fact that he had stood for the LibDems a few years ago failed to come to light for the whole of the leadership campaign – I first heard of it on the very day the result was announced. How exactly can that happen?
The party cannot withstand anymore Walter Mittys, opportunists or those whose sole ambition is to lead something. Everything that the candidate has done or said on the record, every claim that he or she makes about their past careers and achievements must be explored, check and rechecked. Nothing should be taken on trust. This might seem harsh, but we’re talking about the survival of the party here. We cannot give the media any more hand-wrapped gifts.
Finally, the contest should be about political leadership. Sometimes last year at the seventeen or so hustings I took part in, it seemed as though the party was electing a chairman rather than a leader. Often discussions were obsessively inward-looking. No-one doubts that the party needs serious restructuring. But now, more than ever, we need to be electing someone to look outwards to the public, to be known as the face of our party, and to communicate effectively against the betrayal of Brexit.
That process must start on February 17th.