By Conor Holohan
When Henry Bolton was elected as leader of the UK Independence Party, it seemed that the only direction of travel could be upwards.
The party had just lost badly in the Council and General Elections of 2017, and their image was dominated by infighting and PR disasters.
The latest chapter in everyone’s favourite political pantomime has not failed to disappoint. It turns out that far from the only direction being upwards, Mr Bolton had just found himself elected as the captain of the titanic.
On September 29 last year, Henry Bolton was elected as the fourth leader of UKIP since the EU Referendum, winning 29.9% of a vote of 12,915 party members. Two years and one Brexit vote earlier, UKIP received nearly four million votes at the 2015 Election, giving it the third largest vote share of any party.
In June of 2017 their number of votes just surpassed half a million. This dramatic loss of support is largely attributed to the fact that the referendum was won by the leave campaign, leaving UKIP obsolete. At the snap election, both main parties pledge to execute what many characterized as a ‘hard’ Brexit, undermining the main unique selling point UKIP had always had over the other parties.
Weeks passed after Bolton’s election without a single serious story about UKIP getting any traction. The only notable thing about Bolton was just how unknown he was. He had beaten long standing UKIP figures such as David Kurten and Peter Whittle, yet he had no national profile. All of that changed for Bolton and UKIP, when a number of stories about the leader’s personal life were broken over the Christmas break.
Mr Bolton’s leadership fell into doubt over the holidays when he faced calls to resign after it was reported that he had left his wife for 25-year-old ex-glamour model Jo Marney.
A pivotal meeting concerning his leadership was scheduled with the party’s ruling National Executive Committee, just before a series of racist text messages sent by Marney were leaked to the press.
Referring to Prince Harry’s fiancé Meghan Markle, Marney said ‘she’s a black American’ and that ‘they’ are ‘pushing their way to the top slowly. Next will be a Muslim PM. And a black King’.
The messages prompted fierce criticism from the media, UKIP and even Mr Bolton himself who described the messages as ‘abhorrent, unwise and offensive.’ He told the press that he would be ending the romantic element of his relationship with Marney, days before being seen catching the train home from dinner together in London.
Following this, a number of prominent UKIP spokespeople resigned from their roles in order to push Bolton out. Bolton was unprepared to resign, and was equally defiant after receiving a unanimous vote of no confidence from the party’s National Executive Committee.
He said in a statement that he would not be resigning, and would be respecting the constitutional process of the party by staying on and facing a vote by the party membership.
He also said that he would reform the party’s NEC, pledging to ‘drain the swamp’. This pledge gained Mr Bolton the sympathy of former leader Nigel Farage, not only for the recycled Donald Trump phrase – for which Nigel is always a sucker – but because Farage too had his disputes with the NEC. Perceived support from Farage could be crucial for Bolton as the vote of confidence from the membership approaches.
Many UKIP figures are concerned about the party’s large debts and its ability to afford another leadership contest and so are backing Mr Bolton. There are also concerns that the process of electing a leader in UKIP may lead to another lesser known entity winning because so many candidates are allowed onto the final list.
UKIP was flattened in the snap election, however, both of the main parties’ election manifestos pledged to leave the Single Market and the Customs Union.
These pledges, characterised by some as promises for a ‘hard’ Brexit, have been routinely thrown into doubt by the Labour Party. Labour’s emphasis on a ‘jobs first’ Brexit has implications of remaining in both the some kind of Single Market and Customs Union. This would mean that the UK Government could not fully control or cap immigration from inside the EU, nor would it be able to independently sign trade deals.
Whatsmore, the government are pursuing a transitional deal with the EU, which many leading eurosceptics such as Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg oppose.
In June 2017, the political landscape could not have been harsher to UKIP. Now, things have changed, and the party could certainly capitalise on this and begin to rebuild momentum. It is, however, extremely unlikely that they will.
Mr Bolton is, to most of the nation, the man with the racist ‘ex’-girlfriend. His national profile is based purely on that story. UKIP cannot, under Mr Bolton, mark out their territory on any of the main issues because they cannot create a clear message among these distractions.
It is not just Mr Bolton’s fault that UKIP’s ability to create a clear message is hindered. Take a trip with me down memory lane as I mention just a few supermassive PR and policy brick drops from UKIP since the referendum: Leadership favourite Stephen Woolfe being hospitalised by Defence Spokesman Mike Hookem in a meeting of UKIP MEPs, Paul Nuttall’s website falsely claiming he was at the Hillsborough Disaster and his unbelievably misguided policy at the General Election that girls returning from certain countries should be checked at school for female genital mutilation.
It has now also been revealed that Bolton, like his predecessor Paul Nuttall, lied about his qualifications on Linkedin, falsely claiming that he has a BA in Military Studies from Sandhurst, a college which does not offer BAs.
Additionally, Gawain Towler, the respected UKIP spin chief of 13 years has quit over the saga. Towler will continue to offer freelance advice to the party once he steps down following the EGM which will decide Bolton’s future.
UKIP has always had internal problems and has always had some embarrassing members, but now the most embarrassment is coming from the top tier of the trifle.
Some are saying that Mr Bolton ‘is UKIP’ and should consider his actions more carefully. Perhaps the real problem is that Mr Bolton is not UKIP. Neither was Paul Nuttall.
UKIP always was and always will be Nigel Farage, and Bolton is inevitably the latest in a very long line of people to fight the losing battle of filling Nigel Farage’s shoes. Who do you think you are kidding Mr Bolton?