What is the point of UKIP, and how long will their new leader last?

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The great political pugilist and Labour cabinet minister Aneurin Bevan once said: “We all know what happens to people who stay in the middle of the road. They get run over.”

As his first 24 hours as UKIP leader draw to a close, they are words Henry Bolton might choose to reflect on.

Some ponder why on Earth the former soldier and police officer wanted the job. For many, it seemed not just a poisoned chalice but a radioactive one as well.

He is the fifth UKIP leader in a year, not least because the party is in strategic quicksand of their own making.

With their great aim achieved – leaving the European Union – what is the point of UKIP?

With a dire General Election performance, the British public seemed to reach their conclusion in June: not much.

:: Henry Bolton – The ex-Lib Dem leading UKIP

Henry Bolton

UKIP leader: PM has weakened Brexit hand

There was, kippers thought, one path out of political perdition: waiting.

Wait for the compromises to come. Wait for Theresa May to backslide, to make a deal with Brussels which would allow UKIP to play the politics of betrayal, to argue that the Government had not honoured the spirit of the referendum result. Treat this year as a rough patch, as fertile pastures could lie ahead. And at the same time double down on an insatiable public appetite for a tough approach on immigration.

Imagine my surprise then, when in his first national broadcast interview with me on Saturday morning, UKIP’s new leader appeared to repudiate these key planks of UKIP policy.

Not only did he say that he was against the death penalty (or a referendum on the subject, a long-standing UKIP staple) but more importantly that he didn’t approve of the idea of an immigration cap and that he thought a transition period after 2019 was probably a good idea, otherwise he said there could be “a car crash” at our borders in 18 months’ time.

I could barely believe my ears. Here was a freshly minted UKIP leader effectively blunting the two most potent weapons left in the UKIP arsenal.

When I pointed out this was a big departure from previous UKIP leaders (especially Nigel Farage from whom Mr Bolton had received an endorsement), he replied: “I’m my own man.”

UKIP leader Henry Bolton

New UKIP leader Henry Bolton on Farage differences

Not it seems, for long. Only seven hours later, at a speed which made the Theresa May social care u-turn seem leisurely, Mr Bolton changed his approach.

In his speech, he said he wasn’t in favour of any transition period – and that we must leave now. He also dialled up the rhetoric on immigration (albeit with no commitment to a cap).

A senior UKIP source told me before the speech that it would address the issues he had raised in his interview with me. In other words, senior party figures had acted swiftly to try and put out this fire.

They must have known, as Mr Bevan could have told us, that a more reasonable, middle of the road position is no good for UKIP now.

Not only would it be a problem internally, in it would almost certainly lead to anger in large swathes of the party (not least the supporters of the very far-right Anne Marie Waters, who came second in the leadership contest) but it would also be a problem of strategic positioning for the party.

If it is difficult to divine a purpose for UKIP in a post-Brexit world, it is even harder to find one where its leader thinks there ought to be a transition period and is arguably to the left of even the Prime Minister on immigration.

I think Mr Bolton was just answering honestly as he saw it. He is inexperienced at politics and seems a reasonable, decent man.

He was chosen for his organisational prowess – as a former Army man, many kippers thought he could inject the discipline this fractured party badly needs.

But organisation is only one part (and probably a relatively minor one) of the skills needed of any party leader.

Being a great organiser is one thing – but if you can’t provide much in the way of ideas around which a party and voters can gather and cohere, then the future will be bleak.

Henry Bolton wants an Australian-style, points-based system to manage immigration
Mr Bolton has abandoned UKIP’s pledge to bring net migration to zero

How long Mr Bolton lasts will probably depend on how quickly he takes to adapting himself to selling a more traditional UKIP message.

The problem the party might find is they have elected a technocrat in an age of populists, an age they played no small part in creating.

Having met him and watched him for two days, I find it hard to believe he might be capable of corralling those populist forces, as his predecessor Nigel Farage so effectively did for his party, nor be vicious enough to get his teeth into the pretty bloody business of the politics of Brexit betrayal in which many of his colleagues are aggressively engaged.

If Mr Bolton can’t adapt himself to his changed reality, UKIP may well find itself on a sixth leader in all too short a time.

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