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Conference Beat: UKIP and Liberal Democrats

16 September 2016

UKIP Conference

The mood today in Bournemouth was jubilant as UKIP took over the convention centre for its two-day 2016 Autumn Conference. Meeting under the banner "Winning for Britain", delegates were celebrating as they contemplated the future of their movement after the ostensible achievement of its central objective.

However, the achievement of the Brexit vote has left observers wondering whether the party has now run its natural course.

Indeed, some former members appear convinced of this. The morning media eagerly reported on high-profile comments from former staffer Alexandra Phillips, a sometime communications adviser to Nigel Farage, who has defected to the Conservative Party as she believes it is now delivering UKIP policies.

“I think ideologically the Tories are doing the UKIP dance now", she told the Guardian, citing policies such as the proposal to expand selective schooling. Indeed, Mr Farage himself greeted this announcement by declaring: "Another flagship UKIP policy goes mainstream".

However, there were hints of anxiety amid the celebrations, with delegates keen to ensure Brexit would deliver the radical agenda they favoured - an agenda that may differ within the party itself.

At this critical juncture, the party was also electing a new Leader to replace the idosyncratic figure of Nigel Farage.

Diane James, its former Deputy Chair, will now face the task of defining UKIP in Brexit Britain. Elected Leader of the party with a convincing mandate over nearest competitor Lisa Duffy, she proudly told delegates that UKIP was the "political change" movement.

Ms James is a former Conservative who describes herself as having become "totally disillusioned" with her former party. The press have called her "the antithesis of the grouchy old man stereotype and particularly effective at reaching out to the female vote".

She has pursued a three-decade career in the healthcare sector, working in pharmaceuticals and rising to become Director of consultancy firm Iduna Ventures. Ms James was raised in Kent and studied Business Studies and Tourism at Thames Valley University.

Before she appeared, Mr Farage made a barnstorming final speech as Leader that was simultaneously a farewell (he claimed to have given "everything" to the party) and a sign that he would continue to play a high-profile role, including by attempting to win fame in America and becoming, in the words of Sky News, "even more outspoken".

The Guardian has suggested that Mr Farage could be "setting the conditions for a 'Brexit betrayal' narrative that UKIP could use in the 2020 General Election".

It noted that he had set three "tests" to be achieved by 2020. The fact that one of these is essentially aesthetic, involving the replacement of current passport standards with a new design based on the old-fashioned blue one, suggests that the party intends to continue in a marginal, attention-grabbing role focused on populist issues, rather than engaging in substantive debate around the complex practicalities of Brexit.

Liberal Democrat Conference

Also gathering by the seaside this weekend are the Liberal Democrats, who meet in Brighton to examine the policy landscape after a devastating Brexit blow.

As the most explicitly pro-European political party, Leader Tim Farron was swift to occupy the campaigning territory of opposition to the referendum result, declaring that if returned to power, the Lib Dems would not implement Brexit. He has since refined the message by presenting a "plan for Britain in Europe", including a pledge to hold a second referendum on the terms of a final deal.

Still rallying the troops with cries of #libdemfightback, Mr Farron is presenting his case against Brexit under the banner of "the only party fighting to keep Britain open, tolerant and united".

It is notable that this trio of attributes contains within it an implicit disavowal of a spectrum of alternative political outlooks, all seeking to eat into the Lib Dem share of the electoral pie. Open in comparison with nationalism, isolationism and protectionism. Tolerant in contrast with the social conservatism of right and the ideological strictures of left. United, in a newly-important show of defiance against the currents of nationalism sweeping voters towards the SNP in the party's old Scottish strongholds.

The Liberal Democrats' influence may be harshly reduced given their paltry numbers in the Commons, but the party is certainly not giving up without a fight, targeting its old Labour foes at a time of weakness by declaring that the official Opposition "just aren't doing their job". "So if they won't, we will".

Indeed, recent press reports have highlighted plotting afoot in case of any unexpected opportunities to get the party back into power. The Evening Standard has said that 14 former MPs are lining up as "comeback Lib Dems" ready to fight any early General Election. Sir Vince Cable and Ed Davey are among the figures already selected to stand in their lost seats should the opportunity arise.

Meanwhile, the party will this weekend turn itself to debating the usual substantive policy motions. Included on the agenda for discussion are motions on the topics of homelessness; corruption and corporate crime; and - reflecting the party's Brexit objections and its strong ties to university-influenced communities - the future of UK and European collaborative academic research and Erasmus.

Anna Haswell, Senior Political Analyst and Content Marketer
Anna Haswell
Senior Political Analyst and Content Marketer

As Senior Political Analyst at DeHavilland, Anna Haswell leads on financial services policy, as well as covering media issues. In her capacity as Content Marketer, she is also responsible for DeHavilland's briefings and analysis output, working across teams to ensure relevant messages reach current and prospective clients alike. She is a graduate of the University of Oxford and Goldsmiths, University of London.