Later today, in the Devon seaside town of Torquay, the United Kingdom Independence Party will announce its new leader. It’s unlikely to be a tame affair. The choice UKIP members have made will have a profound impact on the future direction of the party, and quite plausibly of the country as well. A number of senior UKIP figures, including former leader Nigel Farage, have already suggested the party could be ‘finished’ if the wrong candidate wins. This will take place against the backdrop of Theresa May’s Florence speech, in which she laid out plans for the UK to maintain much of its current relationship with the EU during a two-year ‘transition period’ after Brexit. A number of prominent Brexit supporters have already accused her of betrayal. I discussed these topics, and others, with UKIP leadership contender, and London Assembly member, David Kurten.
Kurten is confident that UKIP, under the right leadership, can have a strong long-term future in British politics. This is for two primary reasons. Firstly, he doesn’t believe the Government is honouring the Brexit vote in full; indeed it may actively be trying to sabotage it. On the transition deal Kurten states ‘I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a delaying tactic’ to allow time ‘to change the demographics of the country then ultimately five years down the line have a second referendum and keep us in’. Specifically he notes that around 2.7 million UK citizenships have been given out to foreign nationals since 1997, stating ‘now I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is thinking “oh we’ll give out another million or so citizenships over the next five or six years”’ after which the referendum will be rerun. Kurten also asks whether ‘the Remainers in the Conservative Party and the Lib Dems and the Blairites in the Labour Party’ are ‘all working together to get a soft Brexit or ultimately to keep us in’?
Online poster from Brexit campaign group LEAVE.EU backing Kurten
When it comes to the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU Kurten explains we should ‘offer the EU a free and fair trade deal, you can have free access to our markets in exchange for us having free access to your markets which will benefit European businesses tremendously’. However he is clear that to honour the Brexit vote there should be no continuation of freedom of movement, any oversight by the European Court of Justice or continued payments to the EU budget. Indeed on the last point he jokes that, such is the export disparity between the EU and UK, ‘if we did want to be fair in financial terms we could insist that the EU pays us’. If the EU insists on these three points Kurten believes the UK should walk away, repeating Theresa May’s old maxim that ‘no deals better than a bad deal’.
Aside from the state of Brexit negotiations Kurten believes UKIP has a future for a second reason. The Conservative Party, or at least a large element of it, simply isn’t conservative. Kurten states that ‘on many issues, particularly on social and cultural issues, the Conservative Party is no longer conservative, they’ve gone right over to the progressive left’. As a result ‘there’s a big space opened up for common sense small-c conservatism’, which Kurten terms the ‘mid-right’. As such UKIP under his leadership would be for ‘small and medium sized businesses, enterprise, excellence in education and faith, flag and family…’ as ‘I think millions of people want a party like that to be able to vote for’. Kurten is happy to be seen as a ‘continuity Farage candidate’ stating that he’s ‘a big Faragist, I came into UKIP because I loved what he was doing not just on Brexit but on common sense and the courage to stand up against the vagaries of political correctness and stand up for free speech’.
We turn finally to the unavoidable elephant in the room, the possibility that Anne Marie Waters could become the next UKIP leader. Waters, who is currently the bookies favourite to win, has previously described Islam as ‘evil’ and has endorsements from the likes of Geert Wilders and former EDL leader Tommy Robinson. Kurten is clear that ‘I think the party isn’t going to survive if she wins’ as ‘a lot of people who are members and patrons and donors will go’. He admits that there are ‘some things she says that I agree with’, particularly on the need to take a tougher line against Islamist fundamentalists, but maintains two strong criticisms. First Kurten disagrees with Waters blanket opposition to Islam, as opposed to just Islamist. Beyond this he describes her as a ‘social liberal…quite secularist’, noting her previous involvement with the Labour Party, adding ‘that’s not at all conservative’. More generally he describes Waters as wanting to turn UKIP into ‘Marxists against Islam’ which he believes will alienate a big chunk of the public.
UKIP leadership contender Anne Marie Waters at a London rally
It’s clear that UKIP, like Britain, is at a crossroads. Kurten is confident that the party has a bright future, and a crucial role to play in holding the Government to account over Brexit, provided it selects the right leader. On this we will find out very shortly whether he’s got his way. More broadly Kurten reiterates the two main UKIP criticisms of the Conservative Party, the reasons the party developed into such a strong force in the first place. Firstly Kurten believes the Party remains uncommitted to Brexit, and contains elements which are actively trying to water it down. And secondly on a range of social and cultural issues the Conservative Party has distanced itself from traditional conservative values. Regardless of who wins the UKIP leadership contest, these two propositions are likely to remain powerful forces in British politics.