The UK Independence Party’s first conference since the country’s decision to leave the European Union was described by the party’s Welsh Assembly Member Neil Hamilton as “a celebration”. Not that he had a lot to celebrate about a couple of hours after he told NMC Europe that.
Like all the predictions the Remainers made about Brexit, the possibility of rain failed to materialise – not that it would have dampened the chipper mood amongst those who entered the Bournemouth International Centre, surely all looking forward to the final speech that Nigel Farage would make as the leader of the party he took from obscurity and the wilderness into the third largest in votes.
The first notable speaker was his outgoing deputy, Paul Nuttall. He pleaded that the party must “not get bogged down in internal squabbling, and focus on fighting UKIP’s enemies and not on fighting each other”. As I write, I wonder if Mr Nuttall would have bothered uttering this rallying call if he knew what was going to happen about four hours later.
A short interval followed before Farage entered to a fanfare and thunderous applause. Producing his best zingers and taking great pride in removing a Prime Minister, Chancellor and European Commissioner, he spoke about “winning the war” but added that UKIP needs to ensure they “win the peace” and that the Tories don’t deliver a “soft Brexit”. He told the audience that he had given UKIP “everything” and now he was no longer leader, he said: “Now I’m free to really speak my mind!” He thanked those who worked with him helping him “get our country back” and left to equally-enthusiastic applause. Later on, I chased Arron Banks, UKIP donor, out of the building to ask of Nigel’s whereabouts, in the hope of securing an interview with him. Banks told me he was having a smoke on the balcony and pointed me into the direction. As I reached the back, I saw Farage walk into a Range Rover accompanied by two bodyguards. So close.
In the lunch break, I spoke with Christine and Neil Hamilton. Both were in fine fettle and praised Farage, Mr Hamilton calling him a “unique” figure. ‘I can’t think of a single individual who has never been an MP who has had such a major political impact on practical terms.’ There were some barbed remarks, however, with Hamilton telling me that: ‘Farage was a one-man-band, and wasn’t interested in building a team as he liked to lead from the front.’ He also indicated that he felt there would be flaws in a Diane James-led UKIP, saying: ‘She represents the South East of England, where the Labour party are weak. What we need is to add to the qualities that she perhaps lacks to go after disillusioned Labour voters in the North and Wales by utilising people like Paul Nuttall, Lisa Duffy, and dare I say it, even me. As a team, we must go forward to take UKIP to the next level.’
It was less than an hour later that James was announced as leader, defeating the runner-up Duffy by almost 4,000 votes. Her opening speech was full of fighting-talk to Prime Minister Theresa May, dubbing her “Magpie May” and said that UKIP must prepare a manifesto to be “battle ready” for the 2020 General Election.
So, then a processional following of speakers, right?
Just over two hours after her opening speech, I am stood close to Channel 4 News’s premier goading political correspondent, Michael Crick, who I hear say to one of his people: “So it’s Hamilton out, Gill in?” I assumed it was a reference to a potential upcoming interview. Wrong again. I followed Crick up four flights of steps to the room where James would give her first press conference. Revised versions of the list of speakers were being handed-out. Hamilton had been erased, and Nathan Gill, Welsh Leader of the party – who resigned to continue in the Welsh Assembly as an Independent after Hamilton replaced him as UKIP leader in the Welsh Assembly – was now in his place. The fellow leadership candidates, who were also due to speak, were also cut. Crick asked if this was “a purge”. James denied this.
After the press conference, the room outside the main hall was agog and buzzing. Hamilton was now surrounded by press men and women. He told one that: “Well I have to say, she [James] hasn’t made a very convincing start…because she’s not capable of growing a moustache” – a bizarre reference to Farage’s recent upper-lip-hair-growth. “Oh, I’m not going away,” he told those in-front of him. “It seems like a bizarre way to unite a party”, he added. One journalist told him that James said that she was “happy to meet everyone.” “Let’s go and see her now then,” Hamilton said. The journalists present, whose contempt for UKIP beamed off them like sunshine off metal, giggled like noodle-armed henchmen behind a school bully, desperate for Hamilton to go through with it. “It would make good TV, wouldn’t it?” Hamilton exclaimed, still irritated, but smiling mischievously. Comparing the original agenda sheet with the updated one, Hamilton reiterated: “So I’ve been replaced by Nathan Gill and…” “Coffee!” exclaimed Crick, referring to the fact a coffee break now immediately preceded Gill’s slot. “Bitter coffee?” Crick asked. “Well, at least coffee will keep you awake”, came the response. An unnamed UKIP source said that Mrs Hamilton was overheard saying that James was “a Farage puppet” and that “Arron Banks is his best mate…well, money is.” At this point, I decided to approach Mrs Hamilton for a comment, who kindly said thanks but no thanks, but told me her husband might be willing to. As I waited, a UKIP Wales ally accused me of recording Mrs Hamilton on the sly, attempted to peer over my phone to verify this, and when she found nothing, still wanted to prove a point by pushing my hand away, and advised me: “Do yourself a favour and move along.” Undeterred, I tried to turn on charm I don’t possess and attempted to reassure Mrs Hamilton I was innocent, and spoke to her husband, who admitted: “It is all rather perplexing…I’ve been replaced by someone who is not in the UKIP group in the Welsh Assembly.” I asked him if this left his future with UKIP in doubt. “I shall continue to be an assembly member and lead the UKIP group.” I asked him if he felt that this was purely James’s decision or had come from elsewhere. “Even if she didn’t make the decision, she certainly endorsed it, so she has nailed her colours to the mast.”
As Hamilton continued to court attention from the press, I spoke to Steven Woolfe, UKIP’s immigration spokesman. “Diane is entitled to make the decision. I and everyone should accept she is entitled to make the decision.” Glancing to his left at Hamilton, some 20 feet away, Woolfe said: “If people are disappointed, then I’m sorry, but they shouldn’t be holding press conferences over it and should get on with their jobs behind the scenes.” I asked him if he felt James’s actions had made a mockery of Nuttall’s earlier comments for unity and if this has made it a bad start. “I think it’s a very strong start, and if anyone is causing disunity, then it is Neil.” As well as this, I also asked if he felt that he was in line for a high-ranking position in a James leadership. “It’s up to her and I hope that people say I’ve done a good job previously. I’ll do what everyone else is doing and wait and see.”
Soon after, I approached Duffy who was happy to talk and was putting a positive spin on her second place. ‘Seven weeks ago I wasn’t even contemplating being party leader, so in that space of time, to have 25% of the vote, is overwhelming. I’m thrilled to pieces.’ She told me that there is a strong case to put Farage in the House of Lords – ‘I have no idea why he is not there already. I take my hat off to him, what he has done for this country is amazing.’ She was sceptical about having a role under James, saying that: “I shall be very surprised, but I’m here if she needs me,” but was “fully behind her.” Duffy denied knowledge of the Hamilton situation. “There is a change in agenda but that is all I know.”
Mike Hookem, MEP for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire, gave no reaction to Hamilton’s exclusion but was damning of James’s decision to remove the fellow leadership candidates from the agenda. ‘We’ve got a new leader, and we’ve got to congratulate her, follow her and support her. But this isn’t a very good move to remove people who have stood. They’ve worked very hard, spent their own money, gone to the hustings to meet the membership and to take them off the planning, you’re saying: “I’m not going to give you their voice.” It isn’t a good way to go ahead. It’s going to create further divisions.’ He went further, suggesting that James’s decision was “foolish”. At this point, Arron Banks’s statement of setting up a group alongside the party similar to that of Jeremy Corbyn’s Momentum, was doing the rounds. I asked Hookem if he thought that was a good idea. ‘I’m a working-class man from Hull, and I’m not in favour of millionaires who ask themselves: “what can I get for Christmas? I’ll get myself a political party”. I joined UKIP because it’s a grassroots party. The membership are the most important people.’
As the first day drew to a finish, I was tipped-off that Farage was at the Hilton hotel. I stayed for a good hour and more waiting for him, but he was busy celebrating with members upstairs, but did interview MEP Jonathan Arnott, which will feature in full later.
Day two began with anticipation of the speech that Nathan Gill would make, and whether the Hamiltons had decided to be there. They were putting on a brave face on things upstairs, visiting the stalls and signing the UKIP signature board. Mr Hamilton’s signature was subsequently rubbed-away and signed-over. Mrs Hamilton’s remained, but a message proclaiming her a “Tory turncoat” was scribbled next to it, which was covered with thick ink later.
Gill received an ovation from sections of the audience as he approached the podium. He spoke about how his election into the Welsh Assembly gave him “a front-row seat to history” and remembered the moment he and Farage sat in the living room of an unidentified home at the sun rose on June 24th. ‘I asked him: “do you realise you’ve just over thrown the British government? And a European Parliament?”’ Before the speech, Gill granted me an interview, and kindly kept his promise. Away from the hustle and bustle of Kippers conversing, we sat in a corner and discussed his thoughts on the party’s future with James as leader.
“There was a dampening of spirit within the party after the referendum. The leadership campaign was a little bit dirty. Diane kept herself away from that. Yesterday and today, it’s obvious that the party are behind her. People who didn’t vote for her have approached me and told me that they’re behind her. A lot of people also told me that they weren’t planning to stay today but they have, solely because of the agenda change and that she’s put her stamp on things. I said in my speech that if we are not united and if we are divided and fighting, then we won’t achieve anything. We have to unite behind our new leader and we have to move forward in the way she is portraying, and if people don’t like that – go.” Gill praised his new leader’s swift changing of the agenda, saying it was “the right thing to do.” I asked him if he felt her direction and style would differ a lot from Farage. “We are going to go in the right direction and will be the voice for people who felt disenfranchised and that they can’t speak-up for themselves, but her style will be different. She’s a breath of fresh air. Unlike Nigel, she doesn’t drink, and she is also business-like. She’s genuine and passionate in getting to know people, and we’ll all get to know her in the coming months, and the party will grow to love her as much as they love Nigel.”
Gill described UKIP as “the only party that can” reach-out to Labour voters, adding: “Labour are in a bloody civil war. There will be some very interesting years ahead in Britain.” He refused to be drawn on any possibility of his future, whether it would continue to be in the Welsh Assembly, or elsewhere with the party. “I’ve not thought about myself, short or long-term.”
As I made my way towards the stairs to go back and chat amongst those on the stalls, in walked Douglas Carswell, the party’s only MP. There was surprise that his speech was only scheduled for five minutes, but all sources said that five minutes was all the Clacton-On-Sea MP asked for.
The PR machine was working overdrive as Diane James reappeared to meet Carswell at the front-door for a photo opportunity which was a supposed showing of hatchets being buried, although one feels many of the ‘Faragistas’ in the party would sooner bury them in Carswell’s back. After a kind introduction from the new leader, Carswell said he was behind her “110%”. I was intrigued to gauge the sort of response he would get from those in attendance. It was warm, pleasant and some stood to applaud. The Hamiltons made their way downstairs to attend.
Tipped-off by a UKIP source, I discovered Carswell, after making the speech, went upstairs to make chat with those on the stalls. I found myself in a surreal moment where I was chasing Carswell along with Crick and his cameraman. Before he left, I was granted a short interview with Carswell. I asked him what his vision for the future of the party was. “I’m very optimistic. It’s a chance to push the ‘reset’ button. Goodness knows this country needs a creditable alternative to the Tories, and they’re not getting it from Labour or the Liberal Democrats. UKIP is going to be that force.” I tried to force some sort of vitriolic tirade towards Farage with a question about whether he has any positive things to say about him now he has stepped aside. I failed. “I think Nigel has done a tremendous job, not just with his pushing for the referendum, but with taking UKIP from two the three points in the polls to ten. Whatever strategic and tactical differences I had with him, I don’t think anyone could doubt his commitment and achievements. I wish him well for his future career.” So is it a case of ensuring UKIP are on the opposition benches in the 2020 General Election? “Absolutely but before then, we need to gain a bigger presence in local government. One of the encouraging things Diane James said yesterday was about needing to support grassroots councillor candidates. We’ve got to really focus on our presence at grassroots level.”
The afternoon was spent taking-in speeches from London Assembly Members Peter Whittle and David Kurten, both of whom seem to have bright futures with the party. One thing I learnt about being a journalist at a party conference is that no matter how much you’d like to be, you can’t be in more than one place at one time. I missed a speech from another Welsh Assembly member, Mark Reckless, who along with Carswell defected from the Tories, but I caught him outside the hall and spoke to him about his thoughts on the future with Diane James.
‘It’s fantastic that Diane won. I am delighted to see the impressive choreography between her and Douglas Carswell, and that she is trying to bring those together and healing the wounds in the party.’ As one of six Welsh Assembly members for the party, I asked him if he attempts to keep out of the wrangling between Hamilton and Gill. ‘I do the best I can to bring people together, one doesn’t always succeed, but I’m primarily concentrating on chairing the Climate Change and Rural Affairs Committee’, which he described as: “a challenge”, adding: ‘it’s interesting to have a UKIP person in that role. As chairman you are constrained by its membership as you can’t use it to strike-out UKIP policy, but it allows me to bring a wider variety of views and contributions. I want to bring an evidence-led approach.’ Like some people I asked yesterday, his response to my question of how he felt Farage should be remembered in history was short. ‘He should be remembered for getting us the referendum which restored Britain’s independence.’ His outlook on the future for the next election was optimistic. ‘Thanks to the Boundary Review which has redrawn the Thanet seat (the constituency Farage contested and narrowly lost). We have strength in Thurrock too, but we have to pull together and set-out a good domestic agenda that Brexit is not just about wrestling power from Brussels to Britain, but getting power out of Westminster and Whitehall down to our local communities.’
The conference ended with an appearance from the UKIP Choir – who sang the national anthem, “Jerusalem” and “Land of Hope and Glory” as well as a rewritten version of the theme tune for BBC sitcom Dad’s Army – “Who Do You’re Kidding Mr Cameron?” Silly, perhaps, but all rather fun and certainly something less-serious to end a party conference that was full of controversy and momentous moments.
The question that many will ask is will UK Independence Party now fade into darkness or does it find a new revival? It is something we shall discover very soon.
Photo Credit to: Thomas Cassidy