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What Now For Ukip?

11/06/2017 19:22 BST | Updated 11/06/2017 19:22 BST
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Heading into last Thursday's general election, it always looked as if it was going to end up being a tough night for Ukip. In the end, it was worse than many had imagined, with the party's share of the vote collapsing to just 1.8%, its lowest level since 2001. The nearly four million votes gained in 2015 gave them hope of finally becoming a serious player in the House of Commons, despite the difficulties faced by smaller parties under first-past-the-post, but they are now arguably at their lowest ever point.

Paul Nuttall, who took over as leader of the party after Diane James lasted just 18 days in the role, initially looked to be a clever choice to succeed Nigel Farage. An experienced and senior figure in the party, Nuttall had served as its deputy leader for six years before being elevated to the top job. Born and raised in Merseyside and an MEP for North West England since 2009, he won the argument that Ukip needed to concentrate on targeting pro-Brexit, traditionally Labour Party voters in northern constituencies in an attempt to carve out a firm and committed heartland. Buoyed by the country's decision to leave the European Union, he believed the party could act as the "guardians of Brexit", fighting against the "soft Brexit" they had accused the Conservatives and Labour of favouring.

In the end, however, the strategy would prove to be a failure. Whilst it can be argued that fertile ground still remains for the party in Labour's former industrial heartlands, Nuttall's leadership was nothing short of disastrous, and it was no surprise to see him step down on Friday morning. His sixth attempt at winning a seat in the House of Commons ended in embarrassment, with the party's share of the vote in Boston and Skegness (a constituency seen as their best hope of gaining parliamentary representation) dropping by a staggering 26.1%. Nuttall won just 3,308 votes, leaving him 24,000 behind a Conservative candidate who voted Remain in last year's referendum. With the result coming little over three months after a similarly disappointing defeat for Nuttall in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, he had no choice but to resign.

As he rightly pointed out in his resignation speech, Ukip have become a victim of their own success. Their important role in Britain's decision to leave the EU is indisputable, but that choice has left many wondering what it is the party now stands for. With Article 50 already triggered and May increasingly adopting hard-right rhetoric as she attempts to entice socially conservative working-class voters (something she partially managed to achieve by increasing the Conservatives' vote share by 9% in predominately working-class seats), Ukip have found themselves shouting from the sidelines via a leader who consistently scored poorly in leadership polls.

It's telling that, despite no longer being leader, Nigel Farage remains the party's most prominent and visible spokesman, clearly indicating just how vital he remains to Ukip and how much they rely on his charisma and popularity. Despite being a loathed figure on the centre and left, he is still incredibly popular amongst Ukip's dedicated - albeit now severely reduced - supporter base. Nuttall's penchant for gaffes and ill-thought outbursts severely harmed his leadership, but any leader would have struggled with the shadow of Farage hanging over them.

With Nuttall gone and rumours circulating about who his successor may end up being, the future looks bleak for Ukip. But, despite Thursday's setback, it isn't entirely over for them just yet. The parliamentary majority that May sought wasn't realised, leaving the Conservatives reliant on the Democratic Unionist Party in a minority government that could find governing incredibly tough. This will undoubtedly have an impact on Brexit negotiations, and, as many have already speculated, could lead to May - or, potentially, her successor - seeking a "softer" deal with the EU states. If that proves to be the case, Ukip could potentially stage a comeback by presenting themselves as the only party committed to ensuring a hard Brexit. In many ways, this is a reversal of the Liberal Democrats' strategy to target vociferous Remainers, and it offers them a route back to relevance through those who voted most strongly to leave.

Of course, this will only be possible if uncertainty continues to surround the Brexit process. A deal that is seen as being a success by hard Eurosceptics will, ironically, destroy Ukip whilst simultaneously delivering their wildest dreams, leaving them totally irrelevant in post-Brexit Britain. Corbyn's acceptance of the referendum result and May's hard Brexit rhetoric resulted in the two main parties gaining a combined share of the vote not seen since the 1970s, and that isn't going to change unless both wildly alter their views on exiting the EU.

Now searching for their fifth leader in a year, Ukip find themselves in a precarious position. An inability to present themselves as a credible "protector" of Brexit will only see them lose further relevance, resulting in a party that won 12.6% of the vote in 2015 becoming all but wiped out by the time of the next general election. Farage has hinted at another potential comeback, and it could well prove to be that Ukip's survival is dependent on the return of their biggest beast.