- Far-right activist Tommy Robinson’s global profile has grown since jail sentence
- Seen as potential link between Steve Bannon’s rightwing populism and Ukip
- Many Ukip members wary of anti-Islam sentiment
For almost a decade, Tommy Robinson has inhabited the far-right fringe of British politics — without making an impression on the mainstream.
But the 35-year old anti-Islam activist, best known for organising angry marches through UK cities, is now being touted as a significant figure thanks to two high-profile supporters. One is Steve Bannon, the former adviser to US president Donald Trump. The other is Gerard Batten, leader of the pro-Brexit UK Independence party.
Could Mr Robinson now provide the link between Mr Bannon’s campaign to spread radical rightwing populism in Europe and Ukip, the UK political party that played a key role in the Brexit vote but has struggled since?
Mr Robinson’s latest notoriety began in May with a 13-month jail sentence for contempt of court, after he broke two court orders against naming Muslim men accused of sex offences.
Robinson as Bannon-Ukip link
On Wednesday Mr Robinson, whose real name is Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, partially won an appeal against his sentence and was freed on bail pending a re-hearing of the case. “It shows you can fight the establishment and win,” said Raheem Kassam, an associate of Mr Bannon and ally of former Ukip leader Nigel Farage.
Mr Robinson’s case was championed on Fox News, the US network beloved of Mr Trump, and an online petition calling for his release gained more than 630,000 signatories, many from the US. His legal fees were paid by the Middle East Forum, a conservative US think-tank that has previously supported Dutch populist Geert Wilders.
Mr Bannon described Mr Robinson — a convicted fraudster who ran a sunbed shop in Luton — as “a working-class guy” and the “backbone of this country”. Ukip’s Mr Batten likened Mr Robinson’s imprisonment to those of “the suffragettes . . . Gandhi [and] Nelson Mandela”. In a further sign of budding ties between Mr Bannon’s global movement and Britain’s Brexit-focused party, Paul John Watson, an editor at US website Infowars, who champions Mr Trump and has 900,000 Twitter followers, has joined Ukip.
But there are questions over whether Mr Robinson can unite Mr Bannon’s international campaign with Ukip.
Bannon ties to Tory Brexiters
First, Mr Bannon’s European venture is focused on the European Parliament elections in May next year, which he has called “the real first continent-wide face-off between populism and the party of Davos”. The UK will not be participating in the polls because it is set to leave the EU in March.
Second, Mr Bannon and Mr Batten have never actually spoken, according to the Ukip leader. When the American spent time in the UK recently, he was instead in touch with Brexit-supporting Conservatives Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg. “The power is on the Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party, and Steve gravitates towards power,” said Mr Kassam.
Mr Bannon would be more likely to build links with Ukip if Mr Farage were to return as leader. But Mr Batten, who helped to rescue the party from near-bankruptcy and who has a fraught relationship with Mr Farage, is unlikely to step aside willingly. “I’m playing the long game,” Mr Batten said this week.
Third, there is longstanding tension between Ukip and Mr Robinson. Ukip was for years in competition with the far-right British National party, of which Mr Robinson was originally a member. It succeeded in electorally marginalising the BNP, attracting disaffected voters away from cultural issues with its anti-EU platform.
Mr Robinson is not eligible to join Ukip because he is a former member of the BNP and a former supporter of the English Defence League, the far-right activist group he founded in 2009. Mr Batten has met with representatives of the EDL to see whether Ukip could work with them. “It was Gerard who did the due diligence, met them and said no,” recalled one Ukip figure briefed on events.
Ukip remains party of Brexit
Ukip itself faces a balancing act. Since the Brexit referendum, it has been in existential crisis— losing four elected leaders, performing terribly in elections and struggling to find a new raison d’être.
Both Paul Nuttall, its leader in 2016-17, and Mr Batten, who has previously called Islam “a death cult”, have seen Islam as a rallying issue. “I want to major on things like freedom of speech and cultural identity,” Mr Batten said this week, adding that people “just don’t feel able to talk about things”.
But Brexit, rather than opposition to Islam, appears to have boosted the party in recent weeks. Its membership has recovered slightly to 23,000 and its ratings have doubled to 6 per cent after the cabinet met at Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chequers country residence, where she presented a Brexit plan that would leave the UK closely tied to Brussels.
“On the demand side, there’s always been that Brexit betrayal electorate out there,” said Rob Ford, an academic at Manchester university. “ It looks like the point may have arrived for some people. It’s perfectly possible [for Ukip] to get to 10 per cent in the polls without having really any organisational capacity whatsoever.”
On paper Mr Robinson has the ability to increase Ukip’s reach: the video for which he was jailed was viewed 250,000 times on Facebook. But Ukip’s Eurosceptic membership has previously resisted a focus on Islam. “There’s a big gap between ‘I don’t like Chequers’ and ‘I don’t like Muslims’,” said Mr Ford.
Pete Durnell, who was at one time chair of Ukip’s branch in Sandwell, in the West Midlands, left the party late last year and said he had no plans to rejoin because of the anti-Muslim sentiment.
“It’s how the party is shaping up,” he said, adding that he was involved in organising a cricket match with local Muslims. “I would not go around calling Islam a death cult.”
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