LONG READ: How Ukip became the party of Tommy Robinson

Posted On: 
6th December 2018

Senior Ukip figures have been fleeing the party since Gerard Batten took the reins in February 2018. His focus on Islam and his embrace of controversial far-right activist Tommy Robinson have opened up a deep split in the anti-EU outfit, but has also attracted new members and seen a boost in party finances. Could the move keep Ukip locked out of the mainstream forever? Or could it bring alt-right groups in Britain out from the underground? And how did we get here in the first place?

Nigel Farage, Gerard Batten and Tommy Robinson
Credit: 
PA Images

In the summer of 2017, two Ukip figures met at a cafe near Liverpool Street station. Henry Bolton - a virtually unknown leadership candidate - wanted to ask party veteran Gerard Batten to support his bid for the top job. But Batten refused. The MEP said he could not throw his weight behind Bolton because he had tried to oust anti-Islam candidate Anne Marie Waters from the race. The controversial activist, long linked to far right EDL founder Tommy Robinson, had caused waves in the party with her own bid to stand. Bolton had tried to stop her from taking part, arguing she was exempt under party rules. And his attempts to hold Waters back had cost him the support of Batten, an influential party figure who had been one of the founders of Ukip back in 1993. According to Bolton, Gerard Batten admitted he agreed with Waters that the west was “at war with Islam”.

In the end, Bolton won the race and Waters came second. But after a tumultuous few months, the stars aligned for Batten and he himself took the top job. Suddenly, he was in charge of the biggest challenger party on the right of British politics. And to many Ukip figures and other observers, he began using the party machine built up over years campaigning against the EU - but by then in turmoil following the vote for Brexit - to wage that war against Islam.

The shift in direction under Batten and his embrace over recent months of Tommy Robinson sparked an exodus of senior figures from Ukip. But it has also attracted hordes of new members that have put it back on a safer financial footing - the kind who rally to Robinson on Facebook, YouTube and at angry street demonstrations. The kind Nigel Farage sought to rid the party of some years ago. One of those demonstrations will take place in London this weekend. The ‘Brexit Betrayal Rally’ is expected to attract thousands of Leave voters from across the nation on Sunday, with Batten and Robinson the stars of the show. It was the final straw for Farage, the former Ukip leader who helped the party win 4 million votes at the 2015 election and effectively made Brexit happen. Farage this week followed others out the Ukip exit door in despair that the party appears to be turning into a “religious crusade” of far-right extremists against Islam.

Critics point to behaviour by Batten over the years that betray his level of concern about Islamic ways of life. He has promoted the work of Islam-critic Geert Wilders and argued western culture is at risk of being “destroyed” by Islamic fundamentalism. He commissioned a proposed code of conduct for Muslims in 2006 and argued Ukip should adopt its use as a policy. He has described the religion as a “death cult” and said he would support a ban on building new mosques - apparently after being spooked about plans for one close to his east London home. For many, the evidence is clear.

“It's become an ideological obsession for him,” Suzanne Evans, a former Ukip deputy chair who quit the party this week, tells PoliticsHome. “He hates Islam and he hates any manifestation of it... He's absolutely obsessed with Tommy Robinson and an anti-Islam agenda.” One source said: “Anyone who has ever met him is aware that he is a complete obsessive on the subject. He talks about Islam and Brexit and nothing else.” A senior figure who recently quit the party said Batten had always tried to speak out about Islam under Farage, but the ex-leader had “quite rightly kept him locked in a cage for a couple of decades”. A current senior member pondered whether Batten felt particularly threatened because he lives in an area of London with a high Muslim population. It was also noted that Batten’s wife Frances Cayaban is from the Philippines, a country regularly hit by Islamist terror attacks.

Batten rejects the charge he harbours an obsession. “I am obsessed with Brexit,” he argues. “I have spent 25 years fighting for it. I am not obsessed with Islam.” He insists he would not talk about it if interviewers never brought it up. He explains that he refused to back Henry Bolton in the leadership race because he thought the attempts to “scupper” Anne Marie Waters smacked of foul play. He agrees with “a lot” of what Waters says, but argues a Waters-led Ukip would have been “a disaster because she has only got one subject she goes on about and that is not what Ukip is about”. Batten also insists he does not believe the west is at war with Islam and never said that to Bolton, although he warns: “We are becoming increasingly Islamified because we're seeing an increasing influence over our society by Islamic ideology. And I don't want to live under any totalitarian ideology. I want to be a free Englishman in my own country, governed by our own constitution and our own laws. I don't want to live under Fascism, Communism or Islam. They are to my mind totalitarian ideologies and I don't want to live under them, thank you very much.”

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The Ukip trajectory since the party shook the political system at the 2015 general election and effectively secured Brexit is stark. A series of calamitous mis-steps, as well as political circumstance, has seen it shed support among the general public and descend into a laughing stock. The first leadership race after Farage stood down in the wake of the 2016 referendum included a punch-up between two MEPs and saw Diane James clinch the top job - a role she held onto for 18 days before quitting. Her successor Paul Nuttall was caught falsely claiming to have played football professionally for Tranmere Rovers and peddling incorrect or suspect claims about his links to the Hillsborough disaster. He went on to lose a by-election in Stoke-on-Trent - one of the strongest pro-Brexit areas in the country - and eventually stood down after Ukip sunk from four million votes nationwide to 600,000 in the 2017 snap election, handing Clacton to the Tories in the process. Nuttall was followed by Henry Bolton - an ex-army officer who appeared almost normal until he suddenly left his wife for new girlfriend Jo Marney, a model 30 years his junior who was later suspended by the party for allegedly sending racist texts. Bolton refused calls to quit, and after a month of intense infighting, during which a string of senior figures left in disgust, he was deposed by the NEC and replaced by Batten, who took over as an interim leader.

A number of Ukip figures say the party was so ground down by internal warring by that point that it was vulnerable. It was claimed that Paul Nuttall had allowed things to get out of hand in the wake of the referendum by failing to hold onto the unity the Brexit issue had inspired and give more direction. Bolton argues various factions “started to express themselves [under Nuttall] and there was no effort from the centre to pull it together”. He describes the shift as a “universe expanding and galaxies becoming further and further away”. Nuttall declined to comment when approached by PoliticsHome. To make matters worse, the showing by Anne Marie Waters in the leadership race that Bolton won highlighted the strength of feeling in the party against Islam. Bolton argues that the issues she raised, such as grooming gangs and immigration, had a “gravitational pull” towards them for Batten and like-minded Ukip figures. Meanwhile, Farage himself had spent the previous couple of years driving a wedge through Ukip with his support for US presidential candidate - and later president - Donald Trump. A key part of the Trump strategy had been to court the same anti-immigrant footsoldiers who dote on Tommy Robinson. His Muslim ban policy and his interview with InfoWars conspiracist Alex Jones were straight out of the Robinson playbook. Indeed, former Trump right-hand-man Steve Bannon himself believes the west is locked in a war with the Islamic faith. Numerous Ukip figures - most vocally its MEPs - were increasingly dismayed as Farage effectively became the UK spokesman for the Trump campaign and then his British defender-in-chief as the rollercoaster presidency got into swing.

By the time Batten took over Ukip, the different factions of the party had “war fatigue,” according to MEP Bill Etheridge, who quit in October. Etheridge and fellow libertarians like Ben Walker and Trixy Sanderson - known as the Indigo Group - burned themselves out bidding for influence against figures on the "communitarian" wing like Patrick O’Flynn, Suzanne Evans and Lisa Duffy. On the fringes, the socially conservative Support for Families group and the Ukip-LGBT group were likewise forever at odds. “It was an ongoing battle and I think we sort of fought each other to a standstill,” Etheridge tells PoliticsHome. “And as we were doing it, Gerard’s hardman, nationalist approach... trumped it all. Now both of those main wings of the party have ended up packing up and leaving it to the nationalists.”

Henry Bolton argues Batten and his allies were manoeuvring to take over long before he was deposed, hoping to turn Ukip into an anti-Islamic party. He says the NEC had been “courting” the Ukip veteran and that Batten thought the issue should become central to party policy and have its own spokesperson - all of which Batten denies.

In January 2018, Batten organised a meeting between then-leader Bolton and a number of veterans groups at the Union Jack Club in Waterloo. He also invited members of the Football Lads Alliance, the far-right movement that the Premier League has warned pushes an anti-Muslim agenda. The FLA were “pretty feisty” at the meeting, Bolton recalls. “For them it was about Islam - it was about the takeover of our culture and so on.” Batten had made contact with the FLA during the previous year and met them in December. He thought it was time he introduced them to Bolton. But the Ukip leader was late to the meeting because the story about his new girlfriend was just about to break and he was taking calls from Sunday paper journalists. He also had to leave early to go to a Ukip dinner. But Batten encouraged members of the FLA - which later split and re-branded as the Democratic Football Lads Alliance - to join Ukip and endorse its recruitment drive, and he later marched with them at an anti-Muslim rally at which he said the Prophet Muhammad was “a warlord who took many sex slaves”.

A month after the Union Jack Club meeting, Batten was the interim boss of the party and Bolton was out of Ukip altogether - later to form his own Our Nation party. In April this year, Batten was elected unopposed as the official Ukip leader in a process some argue was rigged in his favour. Others accept he had done a good job on the party finances and members were willing to give him a long-term shot at the top job. Soon after he cemented his position, long-standing MEPs James Carver and William Dartmouth left the party - the latter accusing Batten of “hijacking” Ukip to campaign against Islam. The crunch point for Bill Etheridge came at the Ukip annual conference in September, when Batten unveiled an interim manifesto with plans to set up Muslim-only jails. Etheridge, a committed libertarian, was equally appalled by big-state proposals in the document such as nationalising the railways - which fit with the anti-Thatcherite worldview Batten has long held.

But it was the growing love-in with Tommy Robinson that tipped other senior figures over the edge, including Nigel Farage. Robinson - real name Stephen Yaxley Lennon - is an English Defence League founder and former BNP member. He has spent years campaigning against Islam and amassed a large online following on social media, most recently with videos for alt-right Canadian outfit ‘Rebel Media’. Robinson boasts a string of convictions for various violent incidents, alongside one for trying to enter the US illegally and a count of mortgage fraud. Batten says he was taken with Robinson when he agreed to be interviewed by him in April. The Ukip boss was moved to support the activist the following month when he was jailed for live-streaming outside the Huddersfield grooming trial despite reporting restrictions imposed by the judge. Robinson was later freed after an appeal bid was accepted, and the case is due to be decided by the Attorney General. On the day of his release, Robinson walked straight out of court and into the House of Lords where he had lunch with Batten and Ukip peer Lord Pearson - sparking outrage in Westminster.

But the real rows began when Batten raised the question of admitting Robinson as a Ukip member by allowing a special exception for him under party rules. The discussion prompted an angry response from Farage, who at the time said Ukip was being put in danger. “He thinks Robinson is a massively popular figure in the country,” Farage tells PoliticsHome. “He thinks Robinson epitomises the anti-media establishment that Ukip is all about and that having him on board is going to bring huge numbers of people, voters and supporters to the party.” He adds, however: “My view is it will just put a glass ceiling on the thing and [Robinson] and the people he attracts will turn Ukip into the BNP.”

The issue of whether Robinson should become a member was eventually kicked into the long-grass by the ruling Ukip National Executive Committee in September this year. Batten has accepted that to grant him access would require a party-wide referendum. But Ukip bosses were taken by surprise in November when Batten suddenly appointed Robinson as his political advisor on rape gangs and prisons.

Patrick O’Flynn, a former Ukip big beast who had tried and failed to persuade Batten that cosying up to Robinson was not the way to get good media coverage, quit the party, citing what he called the “growing fixation” with the far-right firebrand. But Batten stands firm over why the party could use Robinson to mobilise over the Brexit issue. “They want me to talk about Brexit, which I've been doing for 25 years, but I've got Tommy Robinson to talk about it now,” he tells PoliticsHome. “On the [Brexit Betrayal Rally] platform on Sunday the only subject that we'll be discussing is Brexit and the different aspects of national life that are going to be affected if we don't leave the European Union: farming, fishing, integration, all the rest of it. What Tommy Robinson brings to that is he's got access to a million people on Facebook and this week he sent out emails to 300,000 people asking them to come to that rally.” He adds: “[Tommy Robinson] is trying to help us get more people to support and join Ukip because he believes in the same things that we do... or similar things.”

But not everybody who remains in Ukip is signed up to the pro-Tommy agenda. In a last-ditch bid, a motion of no confidence to oust Batten was debated and voted on by the NEC earlier this month. Organisers of the motion thought they had rallied the nine figures required for a majority. Critics of Batten were pointing to a survey of Ukip members that showed the Islam issue way down the list of priorities compared to others - with Brexit, of course, at number one. But when the moment came, with Batten watching colleagues as he cast his own vote, just three NEC members backed the no-confidence motion.

The moment Batten secured his position was the final nail in the coffin for Suzanne Evans, the former deputy chair who penned the 2015 Ukip manifesto. “It has been a Momentum style takeover at a grassroots level,” she explains, pointing to the pro-Jeremy Corbyn group that has all-but seized every lever of power in the Labour party. “It's been totally infiltrated now. I don't think there's any way back for it.” Farage - who followed Evans out just days later - also sees a parallel with the left-wing takeover of the Labour party. “This is Ukip’s Corbyn,” he says. “This is somebody who sat on our backbenches for a quarter of a century, disagreed with almost every single policy the party ever put forward, has never been promoted by any leaders, and suddenly he takes the party over.” Farage says the rally on Sunday will “damage Ukip” and give an “appalling impression” of what Brexit is. “I could be completely wrong,” he says. “It may be full of blue rinses from Godalming who pay beautifully and bring their sandwiches with them. But I don’t think so somehow.” Batten argues Farage quit the party to position himself for the next MEP elections in case Brexit never happens. Sources say the pair have a mutual dislike and have not spoken a civil word for years.

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Ukip now faces a waiting game to find out whether the shift under Batten will continue to boost its fortunes or lead it to a barrier between the fringes and the mainstream. Batten presses home that the party was “about to drop dead” before he revived it with a flood of new members and a financial bounce-back. “When I took over in February, the membership was falling through the floor,” he says. “We were losing 800 people a month. I've put on 8,000 new members since I took over. We're now up to 26,000 members. We've got people joining every day.” Pointing to the new-found finances, he adds: “You can't fight a war unless you have got weapons and you need money to buy weapons.”

But critics argue the new Ukip members Batten is attracting are worthless compared to the millions of potential votes thrown away through association with Robinson and the adoption of his anti-Islam agenda. One says Batten is chasing “low-hanging fruit”. They add: “He’s going after the few hundred you might get from associating with Tommy Robinson instead of going after the thousands you might get from all political directions who support Brexit.” There are also worries about the party being engulfed by the Islam and Robinson issues when it should be on top of the EU withdrawal. Farage argues: “All Ukip had to do was bide its time and wait for the next political opportunity. And here we are: we have an incredible opportunity. Millions of Tory and Labour voters are feeling furious - not just disenfranchised but furious. And this is the space into which Ukip should have stepped back in. It should be riding high in the polls, but instead it’s obsessing about Tommy Robinson and organising street protests.” Another source says: “This is a golden opportunity for Ukip and we’re busy talking about Tommy Robinson. It’s criminal.”

Many of those who have departed the party in recent weeks find themselves plagued by the idea that Batten is positioning Robinson to take over as Ukip leader. Suzanne Evans says: “I hope to God it doesn’t turn into a party led by Tommy Robinson, but my worry is that is what Gerard is grooming him for.” Henry Bolton adds: “I don’t think politics needs that.” But Batten insists seeing Robinson take over is not part of his strategy. “The trouble with politics is everybody's got a conspiracy theory and most of them are rubbish,” he says. He argues potential Ukip leaders need a better “track record of loyalty” to the party - including membership for at least five years, experience fighting several elections and time serving in an official capacity. He adds: “I don't think Tommy Robinson is cut out for the leadership of the party anyway. That's not what he does. He's more of a maverick.”

Whether or not Tommy Robinson becomes the leader of Ukip, the party is clearly on a course it has no plans to turn back from any time soon. Bill Etheridge says Batten is “unstoppable” once he gets an idea into his mind and grabs it with both hands. “You can point out to Gerard that he’s walking into an absolute storm but if he believes it’s the right thing to do he will carry on,” he argues. “He would have happily walked over the top of the trenches into a hail of machine gun bullets - and he would probably expect them to bounce off him.”

Batten effectively agrees. “We've got to hold our nerve,” he says. “We have got to do some bold things. Because you can only move forward by taking bold action in politics. That is what I've done and I will stand by the results.”

UPDATE: Since this article was published, former Ukip leader Paul Nuttall quit the party. So did Ukip Scotland leader David Coburn, Welsh MEP Nathan Gill and London Assembly member Peter Whittle. Also: Gerard Batten quit the EFDD group in the European Parliament over the attacks from Nigel Farage.