Standing as an independent is often a handy get-out clause for an MP at odds with his or her superiors and officials; a bone of contention between party and politician can prompt a resignation and provoke a by-election, as happened with Zac Goldsmith in Richmond Park. Although it didn’t pay off for that particularly hapless Hooray Henry, if the MP is popular enough within the constituency, voters can overlook tribal loyalties and go for the personality rather than the party. Even then, however, one man (or woman) against the intimidating onslaught of everything a major political party can call upon is not an experience for the faint-hearted.

On the eve of the February 1974 Election, Eddie Milne – MP for Blyth of 14 years’ vintage – was deselected by Labour following years of campaigning against local government corruption in the North East; Milne was eventually vindicated when the Poulson Affair broke, but the involvement of leading Labour figures in the scandal had earned Milne the enmity of his local party. He decided to run as an independent and defeated the Labour candidate. When losing his seat in the October Election that same year, Milne blamed his loss on the overwhelming strength of the party machine, claiming Labour had utilised the entire weight at its disposal and directed it towards Blyth for the sole purpose of dislodging a thorn in its side.

When Nigel Farage announced his intention to stand as a candidate for the seat of South Thanet in Kent at the 2015 General Election, the same party machine that can be turned on its own renegade sons and daughters was directed towards the then-UKIP leader. It was evident that the Conservative Party was determined to prevent Farage from winning the seat at all costs. South Thanet was vacant on account of its Tory MP Laura Sandys deciding to stand down, and such a high-profile figure as Farage aiming to make it seventh time lucky in his ongoing bid for Westminster triggered the alarm bells at Central Office. Emails leaked to the media two years later alleged that Theresa May’s Political Secretary Stephen Parkinson and Chris Brannigan, Director of Government Relations at the Cabinet Office, had played a significant part in the operation to keep Farage out, suggesting this was no ordinary attempt to protect a vulnerable marginal.

Opinion polls published in the months leading up to the Election showed UKIP with a strong lead over the Tories in South Thanet – including 9% in April; Farage being perhaps the most famous politician in the country without an actual Parliamentary constituency to his name meant that the media selected the seat as one-to-watch during the campaign and on Election Night itself. The intervention of comedian Al Murray, standing as an independent in a stunt to further derail Farage’s chances of capturing the seat, placed an even greater spotlight on South Thanet. Its previous claim-to-fame rested on its MP from 1983-97, disgraced Tory Minister Jonathan Aitken; but in 2015 South Thanet attracted as much attention as any other constituency being fought over in the country.

To add additional spice to the drama, the Conservative candidate Craig Mackinlay was a former member of UKIP himself and had been the party’s deputy leader in 1997; he stood unsuccessfully at both the 2001 and 2005 General Elections for UKIP before defecting to the Tories shortly after his second defeat. The incumbent UKIP leader standing against a former UKIP deputy leader in the same seat in 2015 was a dream script for political observers, yet it was difficult to predict which way the wind would blow in South Thanet come the day of the Election. In the end, Mackinlay narrowly defeated Farage, receiving 18,838 votes to Nigel’s 16,026; and that seemed to be the end of the affair, with Farage resigning as UKIP leader and his best shot to date at becoming an MP resulting in failure once again.

However, when Channel 4 News broke the story of extortionate Conservative Party spending during the 2015 General Election the following year, South Thanet returned to the national headlines. The Tories were accused of pouring thousands into the battle-buses ferrying activists to and from marginal constituencies and covering their expenses (including hotel accommodation) in the process; though not a crime in itself, these associated costs should have been regarded as local expenditure rather than national, something which did indeed break the rules.

Kent Police opened an investigation into Craig Mackinlay’s spending returns, and whereas the CPS baulked at proceeding with prosecution when it came to the many other accusations of a similar ilk relating to 2015, the case of South Thanet has been the exception. Today, with less than a week to go to the General Election, it was announced that Craig Mackinlay, his election agent Nathan Gray, and party activist Marion Little have all been charged with offences under the Representation of the People Act 1983 and are scheduled to appear at Westminster Magistrates’ Court on July 4. The CPS decided there was sufficient evidence to charge the trio and it is in the public interest to do so.

With only two years between the last General Election and this one, rather than the expected five, the chances of the South Thanet 2015 result being declared void and a by-election being triggered as a consequence (depending on the outcome of the case against Mackinlay) have been scuppered by the overturning of the Fixed Term Parliament Act and the fact Mackinlay is standing again on June 8. As for Nigel Farage, he’s already declared he won’t be standing this time round, so what could have been a far more interesting end to this story won’t take place after all. But the murky nature of the machinations to prevent Nigel Farage from capturing South Thanet is a lesson to smaller parties and independents everywhere.

© The Editor


boxing-glovesThe impact of Brexit on the political makeup of this country made its mark in remarkably swift time, with the body count including the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and over half of the Shadow Cabinet. Yet, the one party that should have been on top of the world in the wake of British politics’ most seismic shift in over 30 years, the one that should have benefitted from it more than any other, the one for which Brexit was its entire raison d’être, appears to have imploded. While the media’s attention has largely been focused on the civil war within the Labour Party since June 23, the party that actually got the result it wanted has undergone an arguably greater period of turmoil post-Brexit. Yes, I’m naturally talking about our old friends in UKIP. This was the party formed for the sole reason of getting Britain out of the European Union; against all the expected odds, it finally succeeded in achieving its aim, and since then the whole enterprise has gone…well…tits up – an expression I’m sure they wouldn’t object to in UKIP circles.

Nigel Farage, the smoking, gurning, boozing boomerang of British politics who swore his second resignation as UKIP leader really was the end of his stint at the head of the party, is back in charge yet again, though this time he assures us it’s merely an interim post. This has been thrust upon him following the aborted 18-day reign of his successor Diane James. If Jeremy Corbyn was a virtually unknown entity to the average voter when he was elected Labour leader for the first time last year, Diane James was the invisible woman.

The strange – okay one strange – thing about UKIP is that its most familiar members weren’t actually running for control of the party when Nige stepped down for the last time. Ade Edmondson lookalike Paul Nuttall is a regular on ‘Question Time’, ‘The Daily Politics’ and ‘This Week’, as is Suzanne Evans; neither ran. Douglas Carswell is the party’s solitary MP, yet he wasn’t a contender either. Neil Hamilton, the former Tory MP who now leads UKIP in the Welsh Assembly (and a man who seems to live up to every UKIP stereotype with his air of a confused colonial colonel who refuses to accept the loss of the Empire), never got a leadership look in either.

Instead, we had a group of local councillor-types who, one suspected, even their mothers would struggle to recognise. Diane James won it and then quit less than three weeks later. Being kissed by Farage on the podium within seconds of her election victory probably wasn’t to blame, but few would envy her that honour.

A fresh leadership contest has now been thrown into disarray yet again following an ‘incident’ in the European Parliament yesterday, whereby bookies’ favourite Steven Woolfe had an altercation with a fellow UKIP MEP during a meeting of the party’s Euro-sceptic Euro boys (and girls) in Strasbourg. To be fair, all are facing a testing time; their ultimate aim would inevitably render them redundant. An MEP is fairly low down the political pecking order as it is, but actively campaigning for the UK to exit the EU naturally means no more British MEPs. Anyway, from what can be gathered from the somewhat unsavoury headlines, punches were exchanged between Mr Woolfe and – allegedly – Mike Hookem (ironically, UKIP’s Spokesman on Defence), during which the leadership hopeful banged his head; collapsing a couple of hours later, Woolfe was rushed to hospital and had a brain-scan. He is reportedly not in as serious a condition as initially thought.

Amidst this bout of playground politics, one of UKIP’s major donors Arron Banks has claimed the party to be at breaking point and let rip into Neil Hamilton, who supposedly had a few digs at Steven Woolfe on television before his condition after the scrap was fully known. Banks threatens to leave the party if both Hamilton and Douglas Carswell stay in it. The vitriolic antipathy between the various known names in UKIP makes some of Labour’s personality clashes seem no more unpleasant than the good-humoured piss-taking of Nicholas Parsons by Paul Merton on ‘Just a Minute’, and that UKIP seems to be bordering on the brink of complete collapse is remarkable considering no current political party in the country has laid out such a specific ambition and actually achieved it. Like a sportsman who has spent his entire career desperate for an Olympic gold medal, it almost feels as though reaching the pinnacle was a point at which there was only one way left to go – down.

Disgruntled Tories, disillusioned Labour voters, and – most probably – former BNP supporters who no doubt don’t like to talk about it, all flocked to UKIP during the long lead-up to the long-anticipated EU Referendum, won over by Farage’s Donald Trump-like outsider status, something perhaps enhanced by his persistent failure to be elected to Westminster. But now it would appear many that put their cross next to ‘Leave’ on the Referendum paper, chiming with UKIP sentiments, are already looking elsewhere for the next issue, whether drifting back to a Conservative Party now stripped of the Cameroons or even giving Jezza a chance. The old adage about being careful what you wish for appeared highly apt following the Brexit vote. For UKIP, it was a case of job done – so what now? Judging by recent events, oblivion.

The iniquities of Britain’s first-past-the-post system, giving the SNP 56 seats and UKIP just one at the 2015 General Election, has already made the party’s attempts to make inroads into the Commons hard work; but it seems now that UKIP are destined to retreat back to the fringes of British politics, side-by-side on the eternal periphery alongside their ideological enemies, the Greens. Be careful what you wish for indeed.

© The Editor


PMThank God that’s out of the way – summer, I mean; mind you, it’s not as neat and concise as that; these seasons have a habit of overlapping. It may be September 1, but England are playing Pakistan at Headingley, and the schools won’t reopen for business until next week. The party conference season will serve as a prologue to Parliament’s resumption, and that officially starts tomorrow with the Greens. UKIP and the Lib Dems will follow, though these initial get-togethers are not unlike the opening rounds of the League Cup, wherein lower division clubs battle it out before the arrival of the big guns from the Premier League. Decrepit Victorian halls in rundown seaside towns were always the traditional locations for such events, though it’s now more common to hold them in major cities, with their slick and somewhat sterile conference centres reflecting the rise of the professional politician.

As they kick-off the season, both the Greens and UKIP are looking for new leaders, with Natalie ‘Brain-fade’ Bennett (sorry, I have a cold) and Nigel ‘Donald Trump’s my mate’ Farage having fallen on their respective swords; and neither party appears to have a suitably inspiring candidate on hand to supersede them. The Liberal Democrats are next on the circuit, but as the much-discussed imaginary alliance with disgruntled anti-Corbyn Labour MPs has yet to progress beyond the optimist’s drawing board, their Brighton shindig probably won’t attract much attention. If anything, the TUC Congress – taking place between UKIP and the Lib Dems – will perhaps provoke more headlines than the first three party conferences, what with most unions buoyed by the rise of the Corbynistas. When it comes to the actual parties, the Labour and Tory bashes will prove more intriguing.

By the time Labour decamp to the stubborn socialist heartland of Liverpool, Jeremy Corbyn will undoubtedly have been re-elected Labour leader and the party’s ownership by the far left will be complete. Back in the days before specialist Parliamentary TV channels, when your average viewer couldn’t opt out because the party conferences used to take up hours of empty telly time during the day on BBC2, the Labour conference in particular could often provide unlikely entertainment. Between the speeches of the suited and booted MPs, shabbily-clad amateur orators took to the podium and occasionally used the word ‘comrades’ when addressing the multitudes swathed in swirling pipe and cigarette smoke. Bearing in mind the way Labour are going in Corbyn’s capable hands, I have a feeling this year’s conference may well revive that neglected tradition bar the tobacco, which used to give those old conferences the look and feel of a mid-70s Rick Wakeman gig drenched in dry ice, albeit without sequinned cloaks.

The fact that this year’s Labour conference is scheduled to begin the day after the announcement as to whether Jezza or Owen ‘Welsh like Bevan, not Kinnock’ Smith has won the leadership should make it worth watching, if only to see how the split affects events. Household names could well be in short supply, though not necessarily down to the Socialist Workers Party vibe. At one time, Cabinet Ministers who’d lost their seats would pen their memoirs and retire to the Lords; now they appear on ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ – though I wouldn’t have expected anything less from such an undignified clueless bruiser as Ed Balls.

Once Labour’s born-again lefty love-in has concluded, it’ll be the turn of the Tories – the nation’s eternal party of government and the first conference with Mrs May at the helm. The fact that the Conservatives recovered relatively quickly following the fallout of Brexit and Cameron’s hasty exit (leaving the clear-up of the wreckage he caused to his successor) doesn’t necessarily mean all is well in the blue corner. May has entrusted the task of wrestling the country free from its European ties to a trio of prominent Brexiteers who don’t apparently care much for each other, and amidst the good will usually exerted towards a new PM she will have to keep an eye on the recently-installed residents of the backbenches who owe their place there to her broom. It’ll be the first real chance the country and the party will have to see her in action now she’s had a little breathing space to get used to her promotion, having returned from the hiking holiday that provoked an especially puke-inducing article of fawning arse-licking in the pitiful excuse for ‘The Independent’ that now exists solely in cyberspace.

The final major party conference will be the SNP’s in a rather late mid-October. Fired-up by the Brexit decision Scotland didn’t vote for, Nicola Sturgeon will milk the indignation of her nation by reviving the subject of a second Independence Referendum whilst carefully not giving the impression it was exactly the result she wanted to exorcise the ghosts of 2014. This in turn will supply Theresa May with another constitutional headache on top of invoking Article 50 – if indeed it ever is invoked.

So, the Silly Season is drawing to a welcome close and the serious business of alternately rescuing and f**king up the country is back with our elected representatives. It may take some time before we know for sure how they’re managing with that unenviable task; but from the point of view of writing on the subject, I’ll be happy not to have to trawl for hours every day, fruitlessly searching for stories with substance, which basically constitutes my daily experience of the past couple of months.

© The Editor