Magazine article The Spectator

Where Ukip Went Wrong

Magazine article The Spectator

Where Ukip Went Wrong

Article excerpt

Nigel Farage's special relationship with an American website, and its part in his party's sudden meltdown

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What's happened to poor Ukip? Not so long ago, they seemed unstoppable. They were revolting on the right, terrifying the left and shaking up Westminster. The established parties tried sneering at them, smearing them, even copying them. Nothing worked. Then came the general election, the centre held, and Ukip seemed to fall apart. Farage failed to win his target seat in South Thanet, the focus of his whole campaign. He resigned, then farcically unresigned, three days later.

The 'Ukip wars' followed: after an unseemly row over 'Short money' -- the funding provided by the state for opposition parties in Parliament -- Ukip started attacking itself through the media. Further leading figures have resigned and unresigned, or been sacked and unsacked.

Here's the strange thing, though: the election was not a disaster for Ukip. It was a triumph. They won 3.9 million votes -- 3 million more than in 2010, and 1.5 million more than the Liberal Democrats. If that rate of growth, or anything like it, were to continue, by 2020 Nigel Farage could well be prime minister. So why has the party sabotaged itself?

To begin to understand, it helps to cross the Atlantic and meet Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of a mysteriously rich right-wing website called Breitbart. Bannon is a tough cookie: a former 'surface warfare' officer in the US Navy and Goldman Sachs banker who in the 2000s turned his talents towards documentary-making and the crazy, querulous and lucrative world of the American radical right. In the early 2010s, as Ukip ascended, he saw a brilliant business opportunity.

The company Bannon runs is one of a large number of media organisations that exploit what Richard Hofstadter called the 'paranoid style' in US politics. Breitbart specialises in stoking up Middle American rage at big government and the liberal elite. Its founder, Andrew Breitbart, was a charismatic muckraker who worked with Matt Drudge, author of the Drudge Report and probably the most influential right-winger of the internet age. Breitbart's site was generating huge amounts of online traffic when suddenly, at the age of 43, he dropped dead. (The coroner said heart failure; some of Breitbart's keenest admirers say that he was poisoned by Barack Obama's secret agents, which says something about them.) People expected Breitbart's website to die with him but, under Bannon's stewardship, it just got bigger. It is today a profitable company -- though its press office refuses to say where the profit comes from.

The rise of Breitbart on the new media scene chimed nicely with the rise of the Tea Party, the amorphous movement within American conservatism that rose to prominence after the election of Barack Obama and the financial crash. Breitbart became essential reading for embittered American right-wingers, of whom there is no shortage.

Steve Bannon already knew Matthew Richardson, Ukip's general secretary, and he saw in Ukip a British Tea Party. He approached James Delingpole, the Spectator columnist and Ukip sympathiser, and a young man called Raheem Kassam. Kassam, from Uxbridge, had been kicking around the British online right for a few years. He had studied at the University of Westminster, alma mater of Jihadi John, and -- perhaps in reaction to some of his fellow students -- had become stridently pro-American. He created a website called Student Rights, for 'tackling extremism on campuses', and then a couple more sites that huffed about Islamism and the evils of liberalism.

Bannon was an admirer of Delingpole's writing and saw in young Raheem an ideal apprentice. He took them out for lunch towards the end of 2013, and put them in charge of his Breitbart Londonproject. The company rented a swish office in Westminster, which included a handsome flat for Kassam to stay in. On 16 February last year, the site launched. …

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