Thursday morning, a leading UK politician was punched by one of his colleagues during a meeting at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. The punched man, Member of European Parliament Steven Woolfe, passed out afterward:
The MEP who reportedly hit him, Mike Hookem, hasn’t yet been heard from. How could this happen in one of the world’s most advanced and stable democracies?
Why British politicians are punching each other
Woolfe’s party, the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), is the country’s third most popular party — but it has been in a bit of bind since Brexit. The party was founded in 1993 in opposition to British participation in the European Union — and now that Britain has voted to leave the EU, the party has all of a sudden lost its nominal raison d’etre. Nigel Farage, the party’s onetime leader and chief Brexit champion, resigned shortly after the historic vote, claiming his “political ambition has been achieved.”
Absent Farage, who had dominated the party for years, its leadership descended into total chaos. Farage’s successor, Diane James, resigned on Tuesday after just 18 days as party leader, and Farage had to reassume leadership temporarily. James cited lack of “sufficient authority” as her reason, which is a polite way of saying nobody wanted her.
The Thursday morning meeting in Strasbourg was supposed to build some consensus around who would be the next new leader. (It was held in Strasbourg because, ironically, enough, UKIP holds the largest share of EU Parliament seats of any British political party.) Woolfe, a popular MEP, was seen as the leading candidate.
But some UKIP leaders thought Woolfe was disloyal. He had admitted, in a Wednesday statement, that he had thought seriously about defecting to the center-right Conservative Party. Hookem, a former member of the Royal Air Force, apparently got in Woolfe’s face about it. Woolfe then escalated the situation.
“Steven Woolfe has then taken his jacket off, walked over and said: ‘Right you, outside now’ or words to that effect,” a UKIP source told the Guardian. “They went outside and Steven Woolfe got the brunt of it.”
It seems like Hookem did a number on Woolfe. About two hours after the fight, Woolfe passed out and suffered convulsions. Some sources at the time referred to his condition as “life-threatening,” but he was rushed to a hospital and seems to be doing all right.
“I am feeling brighter, happier and smiling as ever,” Woolfe said in a statement. “The only consequence at the moment is a bit of numbness on the left hand side of my face.”
All’s well that ends well, I suppose.
What the fight means
Ultimately, this fight is a symptom of the broader chaos created by the Brexit vote.
Though UKIP had long advocated a Brexit, the party didn’t really seem to expect that it actually would happen. So after the shocking vote in June, the party was left completely flat-footed. It was like the proverbial dog chasing cars: They had no idea what to do after they caught it.
The result has been chaos: a rudderless party where personal disagreements have started to come to the fore. While a fistfight in the European Parliament wasn’t a predictable way those grievances would end up being aired, it’s not exactly surprising in retrospect.
You can see this across British politics, though — not just in UKIP. The UK Labour Party is in the midst of a civil war, partly set off by party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s lukewarm opposition to Brexit. Scotland is seriously considering seceding from the United Kingdom to maintain its EU membership. Spain is making noises about regaining sovereignty over the Rock of Gibraltar, a British possession off the Spanish coast, if its residents want to remain in the EU.
Brexit was a such a surprise, and such a radical break with the status quo, that things that have long been taken for granted are now entirely unsettled. The UKIP fistfight, while dramatic, is the least of Britain’s worries.