Not many of us get to lead a political party, which is just as well for the country. Nor do many of us get to understand just how formidably difficult a job it is, especially in opposition. I had the good fortune to work as press secretary for two Conservative Party leaders, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith, over five years. If it taught me one thing, it was that only geniuses or madmen should apply.
You have to be good at so many things, in no particular order: vision, policy, communication, fundraising, oratory, debating, television, low cunning, high cunning, thinking five moves ahead, diplomacy, leadership, emotion, faking emotion, hiding emotion, keeping your temper, losing your temper, and, above all, man management and delegation.
The meltdown in Ukip’s upper ranks over the past 24 hours is understandably pinned on Nigel Farage. As leader, he takes the rap, whatever his level of personal responsibility. It reminds me of some of the worst days of the Hague and IDS eras. But to what extent is it fair? And to what extent is it possible to figure out what has gone wrong?
Farage is a political phenomenon. Single-handedly, he has propelled his party from being a bit-part actor on the national stage to a central if not starring role. Ukip has been around 20 years, but it took until the European elections of 2014 for it to poll 28 per cent of the national vote and elbow aside the Conservative-Labour duopoly for the first time in 100 years. Even in this election, it polled four times its 2010 support and secured 13 per cent of the national vote.
He is enormously energetic, eternally optimistic, a brilliant fluent speaker and a quick sharp debater. He has little interest in the detail of policy, but he does have an instinctive idea of his beliefs and of the direction he wishes the country to go. For those of us who admire colourful, funny, iconoclastic and straight-talking politicians, he is a breath of fresh air, an antidote to the dreary, monochrome, and politically correct debate that suffocates the country. One thing Left and Right can agree on. The campaign we have just endured was spectacularly dull and uninspiring.
But there are some things Nigel is not so great at. He is no manager, no organiser, and no delegator. Ultimately, the civil war that broke out among his senior aides and colleagues yesterday was a reflection of the fact that he has been unable to build a professional team around him. He has not recruited people of the first rank and, despite the presence of some decent politicians in his party, he has failed to attract to his standard potential political stars.
It is a truism that Ukip is a one-man band and Farage must bear much of the blame for that. He has not found a way of recruiting genuine talent at a political or staff level and clearly he has some people in his tent who positively relish the repellent internecine warfare that broke out today. If Farage intends to stay, which I doubt, he will need to rebuild his rickety machine from the ground up. And if he cannot do that, which I suspect, he should hire some professionals who can.
Sloppy amateurish management can be fixed. But there are deeper factors at play in the Ukip implosion. The dream of replacing Labour as the natural party of the white, working class in the north is hugely at odds with Ukip’s origins as a vessel for traditional Tory discontent in the south. Farage is like a man bestriding a ravine where the divide grows wider by the hour. It is hard to see how he can keep his balance.