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The coup that never was

Posted by Richard Saturday, September 11, 2004

After a period of silence, UKIP is back in the news, with Sykes on the one hand telling the world that he is no longer bankrolling UKIP unless Kilroy is made leader – or something – or perhaps not, depending on which BBC interview you listened to.

On the other hand, Kilroy-Silk was back from a prolonged holiday in Spain, returning, according to the Guardian "to his old Westminster haunts" to warn the "metropolitan political elite" that UKIP intends to defeat the European superstate and "change the face of British politics forever".

In a speech which we are told "deftly mixed self-deprecating humour and combative politics with lacerating attacks on 'lying politicians' and 'lazy, sloppy’ media'", Kilroy repeatedly predicted that an angry and betrayed electorate is poised to overthrow the "old politics" and that he intends to be its instrument.

Claiming to have contacts and friendships within both the Labour cabinet and Tory shadow cabinet - including Jack Straw, "a very good friend of mine" - he said UKIP was already influencing the major party agenda and would do so increasingly.

For all the bravado, however, Kilroy was already blown out of the water. Despite ritual denials from the great man, it was an open secret that he had designs on the UKIP leadership, eager to take over from the lacklustre former Tory whip, Roger Knapman, who had set new records in inaccessibility as he skulked in his West Country home with only one land-line, undisturbed by such modernity as a computer and internet.

When Kilroy first joined the fray, his running mate Nigel Farage had made happy noises about him becoming leader, but no one thought to tell Knapman who, with two of his four-year term still to run, was somewhat miffed to learn that he was so dispensable.

Ruffled feathers had quickly to be smoothed but, as the full horror of the "success" of UKIP in gaining twelve (soon to become eleven) MEPs dawned, Kilroy began to think again. Collecting them all in Brussels for their press debut reinforced the impression that it would be hard to gather a more disparate, dysfunctional bunch of misfits, and that UKIP's "finest" were going to be nothing more than a prolonged series of embarrassments.

What then brought this to a head was the Hartlepool debacle, with Kilroy reluctant to enter into the fray, for fear of winning the seat and then losing in the general election, leaving him without a power base. However, now in his luxury villa in Spain, he was willing to be persuaded, only nobody took time out to persuade him. His phone remained silent while party officials looked for another high profile candidate.

At one time, it looked as if Kilroy was not to be invited to speak at the party’s annual conference, and even now he has only been grudgingly allocated a ten-minute slot just before lunch on the Saturday, well clear of poll position.

Nevertheless, the plan was definitely that this speech should be the first move in his leadership campaign, aimed to bring Kilroy to the top seat well before the general election, in time to lead UKIP – and himself – to Westminster, with a least one parliamentary seat.

But that was to reckon without Sykes who let his dissatisfaction with the increasingly dysfunctional party be publicly known, together with his preference for Kilroy as leader – thus proving that stupidity is not the exclusive domain of the poor.

With the cat now out of the bag, Knapman and his partner in crime, Farage, were fully alerted, leaving a tight-lipped Farage to tell the BBC Radio 4 PM programme that there was "no vacancy".

Farage then declared that there was "no mechanism" to elect a new leader. He was partly right. The procedure has been made deliberately complex, so much so that an overt campaign could easily be defeated on procedural grounds. Any chance Kilroy had of taking over by the spring had gone. The coup had failed before it had even got off the ground.

Meanwhile, in a Hartlepool bedecked by Lim-Dim posters, UKIP has just been evicted from its campaign office, which had yet to be equipped with luxuries like telephones, only to move to a similarly phoneless semi-derelict shop. There, campaign manager Piers Merchant – another re-tread Tory MP – is running the show with the help of a "pray-as-you-go" mobile, while nipping off down to the library every lunchtime to read his e-mails.

Thus have the mighty fallen, with predictions for the UKIP vote lurching between two and five percent. Bets are being taken on whether the Monster Raving Loony candidate beats them to the post – but there are no bets on a UKIP MP after the general.