ONCE again, the UK Independence Party finds itself living in interesting times after an MEP, considered to be one of the favourites to replace short-lived Nigel Farage replacement Diane James, was hospitalised following an ‘altercation’ between UKIP MEPs at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Steven Woolfe, a 49-year-old barrister and Aberystwyth University graduate, apparently collapsed after suffering two ‘epilepsy-style’ fits following a heated meeting in which he asked fellow UKIP AM and armed forces veteran Mike Hookem to ‘take it outside’.
Mr Hookem has denied punching Mr Woolfe and, in an interview with the national press, accused his fellow party member of exaggerating the extent of his injuries.
One of the first to comment on the matter was the leader of UKIP in Wales, Neil Hamilton, who told the BBC he had heard that, following an argument, Mr Woolfe had ‘picked a fight with someone and came off worst’.
This was swiftly attacked by Nigel Farage, among others, and Mr Hamilton initially denied making the statement in an episode of Question Time filmed on the night of the incident (Thursday, October 6) until being forced into a somewhat embarrassing climb-down by host David Dimbleby.
Mr Woolfe was widely viewed as the favourite to succeed Nigel Farage, until he was disqualified from the leadership race for submitting his application 17 minutes late – something that was blamed on a ‘server error’. However, after Diane James quit the top job, to be replaced on an interim basis by Nigel Farage (again), his name came back into contention.
His candidacy, should it happen, was endorsed by multi-millionaire Conservative-turned-UKIP backer Arron Banks, who writing for the Daily Express on the weekend said that: “We just need a capable leader like Steven in charge, and the hopeless amateurs on its National Executive Committee cleaned out – along with Douglas Carswell, Neil Hamilton and the rest of the slimy, Tory turncoats pulling their strings.
“If that can’t be done, I’m afraid that myself and a number of other senior figures backing the party will have to move on to bigger and better things,” he added.
While questions could be raised about whether a man who gave more than £300,000 in donations to the Conservatives can legitimately describe anyone else as a ‘Tory turncoat’, these remarks hint at another divide within an already-divided party.
Former leader, interim leader, and easily UKIP’s most recognisable figure Nigel Farage is also no fan of the aforementioned Carswell, and he recently described the prospect of Neil Hamilton leading the party as ‘a horror story’. Mr Hamilton had already ruled himself out of the leadership contest at this point, suggesting that ‘my wife would kill me’.
The leader of UKIP in Wales hit back at Mr Banks’ remarks: “For months now I’ve been on the receiving end of a tirade of vilification from Arron Banks and his followers,” Mr Hamilton told the media.
“A lot of it is appalling abuse; he has emailed my wife and insulted her and this is the sort of thing that simply cannot be tolerated.
“Arron Banks has said Douglas Carswell, our only MP, is semi-autistic and he has referred disparagingly to his wonky chin and so on.
“What are we doing permitting people like this to run amok inside our party?”
The idea of expelling Mr Hamilton from the party could be problematic, especially given that he is the second person to lead UKIP in Wales this year, and will be serving as AM in the Senedd until 2021. UKIP’s Senedd presence has already decreased by a seventh as a result of their former leader in Wales, Nathan Gill, leaving the Whip and remaining in y Siambr as an Independent, in spite of still being a UKIP MEP.
It is also worth noting that Mr Hamilton leads the largest UKIP group in any British parliament. If UKIP enjoyed similar representation in Westminster, they would have around 75 MPs – or 65 and 10 independents. It is, therefore, rather difficult to argue that Wales has not been a success story for UKIP. However, this failed to stop Nathan Gill being overlooked for the role of Senedd leader and apparently dismissed from his position as Leader in Wales by the NEC.
Given that the British public has now voted to leave the EU, UKIP must, by definition, undergo a process of reinvention or face irrelevance. However, the direction this will take is not necessarily clear. Attempts to target working class voters in Labour strongholds have, in spite of an improved showing in the 2015 elections, not translated into Westminster seats, and as the Labour party is has found out, widespread media coverage of internal rifts do not inspire the electorate with confidence.
Whoever wins the next leadership contest will have to reunite a divided party and lead it into the mainstream if UKIP are to avoid becoming a historical footnote, and it has been queried whether someone willing to resort to fisticuffs with one of their colleagues would be the best person for the job. The Conservative Party’s move into UKIP territory on certain policies, including Brexit strategy and education, will also make it more difficult to pick up votes on the Right. However, with both of the largest parties currently embroiled in internal squabbles of their own, this could be far from the worst time for UKIP to start building for the next general election.
UK Government’s ‘considerable offer’ not enough
IN A speech delivered at Airbus’ Broughton HQ, Theresa May’s effective deputy, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, has attempted to allay fears of a Westminster power grab of devolved powers following the UK’s departure from the EU.
Mr Lidington, claimed the UK Government had made a ‘considerable offer’ to the devolved administrations with a commitment that the ‘vast majority’ of powers returning from Brussels will start off in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast rather than Whitehall.
Mr Lidington, said his plans marked “a very big change to the EU Withdrawal Bill that is before Parliament and a significant step forward in these negotiations.”
He continued: “If accepted, this offer puts beyond doubt our commitment to a smooth and orderly departure from the European Union, in a way that doesn’t just respect the devolution settlements, but strengthens and enhances them.”
Mr Lidington warned that a “divided country at home” would be “weaker, less secure and less prosperous overseas.”
The problem with Mr Lidington’s words is that ‘the vast majority’ is not all powers currently vested in the UKs’ devolved administrations within the EU. Moreover, the clear message that the Westminster government wanted to maintain the unity of an internal market within the UK suggests that powers will have to be taken from the devolved governments and retained permanently by the UK parliament in order to make that arrangement work. However, the UK government’s stance on agriculture, a key issue for the Welsh Government, has been extensively trailed by Michael Gove and Defra ministers for months and cannot have taken it by surprise.
Mike Russell, the Scottish Brexit minister, said: “However they try to dress this up, the UK government is using Brexit to try to take control of devolved powers without the agreement of the Scottish parliament. It is totally unacceptable for the Tories to unilaterally rewrite the devolution settlement.”
First Minister, Carwyn Jones, said: “As currently drafted, the Bill allows the UK government to take control of devolved policy areas, such as farming and fishing, once the UK has left the EU. This is an unacceptable attack on devolution in both Wales and Scotland.
“We now need further progress that goes beyond warm words and I hope the ‘very big changes’ promised in the speech equate to sensible amendments to the bill which respect devolution. We will continue to work with the UK and Scottish governments to that end.”
Welsh Liberal Democrat Leader Jane Dodds commented: “Common frameworks in certain areas will certainly be important after Brexit and we would never want to put the UK’s common market at risk. However, it must be up to devolved Governments to decide if they want to enter common frameworks in devolved areas and to negotiate suitable frameworks. The UK Government cannot and must not impose frameworks on devolved Governments.
“Brexit will have huge implications for sectors such as agriculture. Brexit will cut our farmers off from their key markets and dismantle the financial support they rely on. Decisions on these vital areas must be made in Wales and address the unique needs of Welsh farmers.”
The Welsh Conservative spokesman on Europe, Mark Isherwood AM, said: “Welsh Conservatives have been steadfast in our belief that the devolution settlement must be respected with the necessary changes made to the EU Withdrawal Bill.
“As we’ve stated from the outset, we would also expect that leaving the European Union would not undermine the devolved settlement and would result in more powers making their way to the Welsh Assembly.
“It is vital that we now protect the UK’s single market and that’s why it is imperative the Welsh Government engages positively with the UK Government in this process to ensure the frameworks relating to devolved matters are agreed by all parties.”
Wales’ housing adaptation system ‘unfair’
THE CURRENT system for delivering housing adaptations needs to change in order to meet the needs of older and disabled people in Wales. That’s the conclusion of a report by the Auditor General for Wales.
Roughly, 70 agencies deliver housing adaptation services assisting over 32,000 people a year. Annually, over £60 million of public money is spent on these services to older and disabled people. They help restore or enable independent living, privacy, confidence and dignity for individuals and their families. Adaptations also offer an efficient and effective way of making the best use of the existing housing stock in Wales by supporting people to live independently.
The report concludes that high satisfaction ratings mask a hugely ‘complicated, reactive and inequitable system’.
The conclusions include:
Assessment processes are not streamlined or efficient, which lead to delays which can be the difference between people staying in their own homes or moving into specialist care;
The complex systems used to deliver adaptations make it difficult for people to get the help they need and often stops health professionals from using adaptation services;
There is not enough joined up working between agencies and local authorities which is making it harder for those in need to access services; and
The adaptations disabled and older people can receive are often determined by where they live in Wales and who they seek help from rather than their need;
Public bodies are not improving performance because of limited oversight of performance across Wales.
The Auditor General, Huw Vaughan-Thomas said: “Demand for housing adaptations is projected to rise. That’s why it’s so important that public bodies improve how they deliver adaptations and address the many weaknesses in the current complicated and inefficient system.
“People deserve the very best standard of service to help them live independently. Unfortunately, public bodies have failed to address some long standing weaknesses in current arrangements and disabled and older people are the ones losing out. This needs to change. My recommendations are aimed at helping kick-start much needed improvement.”
The Chair of the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee, Nick Ramsay AM, said: “Housing adaptations are important in helping older and disabled people maintain their independence, but today’s report shows that due to the complexity of the current delivery system, people get very different standards of service because of where they live and not what they need.
“The report’s findings highlight a range of weaknesses and highlights that the Welsh Government, local authorities, housing associations and their partners need to improve how they deliver services to some of the most vulnerable people in society.
“It is critical that action is taken now to ensure public money is spent wisely and vulnerable people are provided with the help they need.”
Meet Barry Gardiner
IT WOULD be very cruel to suggest that Jeremy Corbyn’s late conversion to Britain being members of a customs union with the EU post-Brexit was motivated by crude politicking.
Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Barry Gardiner, has spent most of the last twelve months echoing the ‘Brexit means Brexit’ line and rejecting any form of customs union.
If Mr Gardiner was disappointed by his leader’s very public rejection of what he had every reason to believe was Mr Corbyn’s preferred policy he had every reason to be. Especially as he now has to sell the brave new policy to the media.
Writing in The Guardian last year, Barry Gardiner said: ”Some have suggested we should retain membership of the customs union, the benefits of which extend to goods rather than services, and establish common import tariffs with respect to the rest of the world. But that is not possible.”
He continued: ”Other countries such as Turkey have a separate customs union agreement with the EU. If we were to have a similar agreement, several things would follow: the EU’s 27 members would set the common tariffs and Britain would have no say in how they were set. We would be unable to enter into any separate bilateral free trade agreement. We would be obliged to align our regulatory regime with the EU in all areas covered by the union, without any say in the rules we had to adopt. And we would be bound by the case law of the ECJ, even though we would have no power to bring a case to the court.”
In other words, Mr Gardiner believes – or at least he believed then, or perhaps he believed his leader believed, or hoped against hope someone somewhere believed – that membership of a customs union was a non-starter.
He crystallised that sentiment in one pithy phrase: ‘The 52% who voted to leave the EU would consider it a con if Britain was out of Europe but still subservient to its laws and institutions’.
What a difference six months make.
On Tuesday, Jeremy Corbyn said: “We have long argued that a customs union is a viable option for the final deal. So Labour would seek to negotiate a new comprehensive UK-EU customs union to ensure that there are no tariffs with Europe.”
Mr Gardiner, a genial-looking chap, must have remarkable self-control not to jump up from his seat and bellow, “You what?!”
So, now we have a sort of clear sort of policy placed before the public as an alternative to the Conservatives’ vision for Brexit. Whatever that is.
In fact, Mr Corbyn’s speechwriters came up with a very nice line on the chaos within Conservative ranks: “Time after time with this government, anything agreed at breakfast is being briefed against by lunch and abandoned by teatime.”
However, it is now poor Barry Gardiner who must explain Labour’s long teatime of the soul on a customs union. Genial though he appears, Mr Gardiner’s patience is about to sorely tested.
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