At the Annual Ukip Conference held this year in Birmingham, I spoke at the Gala dinner. My message was very simple: one of the reasons for Ukip’s success was that we’d excluded extremists and focused on organising and fighting elections. I warned that any change to this policy would damage the party beyond repair.
As I walked back to my seat, I was met by several angry young men, red in the face and mildly abusive, who all seemed to be obsessed with Islam and Tommy Robinson.
I wondered at that time if I’d just given my last Ukip speech. For 25 years of my life, Ukip has dominated my thoughts and actions. I have been determined in my desire to professionalise the party, to spread our message, and to contest elections at all levels. I have spoken at about 1,500 public meetings over the last two-and-a-half decades and covered hundreds of thousands of miles doing so.
While the party has had its ups and downs, its achievements have been extraordinary. The focus was always clear: take votes from the establishment parties to force change and to fight for the independence of our country.
Ukippers may often have been regarded as an individualistic and eccentric bunch but, in the main, I know these party members have been decent and respectable people. So, too, are the millions who have voted for Ukip since 1993. As I’ve said many times before, under my leadership of Ukip, the party banned former members of the BNP and EDL from joining. Many accusations of racism and extremism were thrown at us, but I strongly maintain they were untrue.
Under Gerard Batten’s leadership, however, the party’s direction has changed fundamentally. Analysis of weekly local council by-elections up and down the country shows that Ukip now fields very few candidates. Worse still, many of our very best organisers and activists on the ground have resigned their positions. This means we no longer have a professional campaigning team. The party of elections is quickly becoming a party of street activism, with our members being urged to attend marches rather than taking the fight to the ballot box.
The great irony of this change in approach is that it is happening at a time of maximum electoral opportunity for Ukip. With the Conservative and Labour parties having openly broken both their referendum and general election promises, Ukip should be riding high in the polls. With regret, however, I must admit that I now do not believe it will do so again. Mr Batten’s obsession with Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (to use Tommy Robinson’s real name) and fixation with the issue of Islam makes Ukip unrecognisable to many of us.
While Robinson may hold an appeal to some members of society who feel they are disenfranchised, I believe he is entirely unsuitable to be involved in any political party. The fact is that his entourage includes violent criminals and ex-BNP members. Many Ukip members – including Ukip’s NEC – urged that Robinson should not become an advisor to Batten. Sadly, these pleas fell on deaf ears.
A photograph published at the weekend by The Sunday Telegraphshowed a planning meeting for a march and rally scheduled to take place this Sunday, just two days before MPs vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal – the most important parliamentary vote of modern times.
In the photo, Tommy Robinson can be seen seated beside Gerard Batten. Next to Robinson is a man called Daniel Thomas, a convicted armed kidnapper. There are other pretty unsavoury-looking characters dotted around the room. These are the people organising the ‘Brexit’ march that is now advertised on the Ukip website. My heart sinks as I reflect on the idea that they may be seen by some as representative of the cause for which I have campaigned for so much of my adult life.
There was one last opportunity to stop Ukip being part of this probable travesty, which may well inspire violence and thuggish behaviour and, with it, give the opponents of Brexit a chance to lambast Brexiteers everywhere. Ukip’s NEC restated that it did not want Robinson to be installed as an advisor. In doing so, however, it did not pass a motion of no confidence in Mr Batten’s leadership. I only wish that those concerned had shown more courage.
We are now just a few days away from the most ill-judged political event I have ever been aware of in British politics. The very idea of Tommy Robinson being at the centre of the Brexit debate is too awful to contemplate.
And so, with a heavy heart, and after all my years of devotion to the party, I am leaving Ukip today. There is a huge space for a Brexit party in British politics, but it won’t be filled by Ukip.