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LGC Briefing: Airport crash lands Ukip's council

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LGC’s essential daily briefing 

Manston airport has never played any great role in local government but will now forever be at least a footnote as the immediate cause of Ukip losing the only council it ever controlled.

Ukip’s high tide came in the middle of this decade with about 300 seats and its jewel in the crown was the series of coastal resorts that comprise most of Thanet DC.

It secured an outright majority there in 2015 after previous administrations presided over bizarre and baffling scandals that included forgetting to impound a ship that owed millions in harbour fees, a former leader addressing an insulting tirade to councillors, a peer review that said residents saw council meetings as “a form of entertainment” and a claim that a councillor was pursued round Margate after an altercation over confidential papers.

It was a situation made for pretty well any ‘new broom’ to sweep in and Ukip leader Chris Wells expressed a wish to run the nation’s “most boring district council” after the previous uproar.

He had reckoned though without his councillors. Manston airport had closed having been little used for many years but was regarded as a potential source of jobs and with some local pride; Ukip rode to power promising to keep it open.

That though required an airline to fly from it, and not even the most obscure budget carrier showed the slightest interest.

It was not only Manston that caused trouble. How careful Ukip had been in its candidate selections is a matter for conjecture, but since 2015 Thanet has switched between majority and minority control and back again as defections and by-elections caused by resignations made the council’s composition unpredictable. This suggests perhaps that Ukip party loyalty was rather flexible.

Cllr Wells and his supporters changed their minds when the brute mathematics showed it was impossible to re-open Manston as a functioning airport.

The Manston enthusiasts though would not and left Ukip, leading to this week’s takeover by a minority Tory administration.

Ukip has also seen mass defections of councillors at Thurrock and Hartlepool BCs, citing grievances over the party’s well documented national in-fighting, which has seen it on its sixth leader (if one counts acting ones) since the EU referendum.

Its problem ultimately may have been that Ukip was founded on a single national (indeed international) issue and never really had much point or coherence at local level.

With no ability to do much about the EU from a council chamber, Ukip councillors had to function more like residents’ or ratepayer groups – a status made even less coherent by the party refusing to operate a whip, which made it hard for others to strike deals with it.

Whatever happens to the remnants of Ukip now it will be remembered as the party that created the climate in which prime minister David Cameron felt forced to concede a referendum.

In local government, it will be remembered for an acrimonious dispute over a remote airport and some councillors who were more like independents.

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