Further shift to right by Ukip may prompt party exodus, say insiders

Peter Walker Political correspondent
Ukip leader Gerard Batten, who took over the party unopposed in April. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Large numbers of Ukip members could consider leaving the party if Gerard Batten makes further moves to reshape it as a hard-right populist movement at its annual conference in Birmingham, senior insiders have predicted.

Moderate activists will be particularly alarmed if the two-day gathering, starting on Friday, sees Batten push ahead with his apparent plan to seek Ukip membership for the anti-Islam activist Tommy Robinson, the sources said.

Batten has appeared at several intermittently violent rallies supporting Robinson, the political stage name of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, who was jailed for contempt of court over live broadcasts outside courts hearing rape trials.

Last weekend Batten spoke at a rally in Sunderland organised by the so-called Democratic Football Lads Alliance, a Robinson-linked protest group that expresses anti-Islam sentiments based around the notion of combating sexual grooming gangs.

Batten expresses similarly vehement views. He has said Islam is spread by “violence and intimidation”, and called for British Muslims to be asked to sign a document renouncing parts of the Qur’an.

There will not be a formal debate at the conference about membership for Robinson, whom Batten has likened to Gandhi and Nelson Mandela, after this was blocked by Ukip’s national executive committee.

However, in a sign of the ascendency of Batten it will hear from two controversial YouTube personalities who have been brought into Ukip as part of an attempt to reshape it for a post-Brexit age.

This will include a speech by Mark Meechan, who makes videos under the name Count Dankula. He styles himself as a comedian and free-speech advocate, but remains best known for being fined after he posted an online video of his girlfriend’s pug dog giving Nazi salutes.

There will also be a video address by Carl Benjamin, otherwise known as Sargon of Akkad. His content is based more around opposition to Islam, and he has been accused of misogyny and abuse, and of provoking Twitter rape threats (paywall).

Ukip sources said a significant number of disaffected members were closely watching to see whether Batten, who took over unopposed in April saying he would only serve for a year, shows signs of seeking to permanently change the party.

One senior party member, who asked to not be named, said he believed Batten was backed by about 60% of the party, but that many of the rest were considering their future.

“If Gerard stays on, or the next leader supports his views, they would leave, 100%,” the source said. “He seems to want to make us into more of a street movement, some sort of strange pressure group.

“If there’s no change you could kiss our status as a political party goodbye. There’s no way on earth that I can go on the doorstep and sell this shit to people, and lots of others feel the same.”

It is an unexpected path for a previously more mainstream organisation many credit with pushing David Cameron towards agreeing to the Brexit referendum, and was the third-biggest party by vote share at the 2015 election, under Nigel Farage.

Former Ukip leader Nigel Farage on a speaking tour in New Zealand. Photograph: Phil Walter/Getty Images

After Farage stepped down in 2016, Ukip slipped into chaos, with four permanent leaders and plummeting poll numbers. Batten was charged with stabilising the party after the disastrous tenure of Henry Bolton.

He has received praise from many in Ukip for rescuing it from possible bankruptcy. Batten has also overseen a significant boost in membership, though it remains unclear whether this is down to his views or because of disquiet at the government’s Brexit plans.

Another senior party source said the upcoming party conference seemed planned as “the confirmation of Gerard’s takeover, and the shift of the party towards the hard right”.

Many moderate activists were considering their future, they said: “They’re probably lying low to see just how extreme it gets. Many of them are by the door, but looking back into the room, hoping there’s a chance to go back in.”

A lot of members were deeply worried about Ukip’s future under Batten, they said: “The way things are going, Ukip will become an organisation with a large membership, but which never polls more than 2% or 3%.

“If you knock on doors, there’s an appetite for a sort of centre-right patriotic party with one or two rough edges. But there’s certainly no appetite for a hardcore, tough guy, marching the streets type of party. That just turns people off.”

Batten declines to speak to the Guardian, which he has placed on a list of “biased media” with whom he will not engage.