UK Politics

UKIP prepares to name new leader after bitter contest

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Media captionUKIP's ups and downs - and what the future might hold

UKIP will unveil its new leader on Friday at its party conference in Torquay, after a contest that has turned into a battle for the soul of the party.

"It's more intense, vicious and dirtier than it's ever been," says one UKIP MEP of the infighting gripping the party.

The top job has already been held by two different leaders in the year since Nigel Farage resigned. One of them, Diane James, lasted just 18 days in the job, saying she could not "continue to bang [her] head against a brick wall".

Her successor, Paul Nuttall, stood down after the general election, in which the party struggled to convince voters it still had a purpose after achieving the thing it was set up to do - Britain's exit from the European Union.

Nigel Farage - still the face of the party - has not ruled out a return to front-line politics to fight for the delivery of a full Brexit.

He is not standing in this leadership election and there is a question mark over whether any return would be with UKIP.

Image copyright AFP

His friend and ally, former UKIP donor Arron Banks, says he can see a situation where a new party could be formed: "UKIP potentially has new life breathed into it from Theresa May's Florence speech."

The self-styled "bad boy of Brexit", who bankrolled the Leave.EU campaign, is unhappy with the prime minister's suggestion there should be a two-year transition period after Brexit.

"We're not leaving, it's just a never-ending transition. That takes you five years past the date of the vote, where presumably there'll be a general election where they'll try and reverse it," Mr Banks fears.

So should Nigel Farage return? "I would want him to. The Tories have backslid on Brexit now," Banks continues.

But the man himself is neither ruling a return in or out, simply replying "no comment" when asked about the possibility.

An initial shortlist of 11 candidates battling it out to be the next UKIP leader has now been whittled down to seven.

UKIP leadership contenders

Image copyright Shutterstock
Image caption Anne Marie Waters is the bookies' favourite

Henry Bolton - former candidate for Kent police and crime commissioner

Jane Collins - MEP for Yorkshire and Humber

David Kurten - London Assembly member

Aidan Powlesland - Former parliamentary candidate

John Rees-Evans - Former parliamentary candidate

Anne Marie Waters - Director of Sharia Watch UK

Peter Whittle - Deputy UKIP leader and London Assembly member

Anne Marie Waters, a former Labour activist, who campaigns against Islam and Sharia law, is currently favourite with the bookmakers to take the crown.

Her candidacy, which is backed by former English Defence League leader Tommy Robinson, was fiercely opposed by some in the party, including Mr Farage.

West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge told the BBC he was considering leaving UKIP and sitting as an independent in the European Parliament if either she or another of the front-runners, London Assembly member Peter Whittle, wins the contest.

Speaking on BBC Sunday Politics West Midlands, he said that the views of Ms Waters and Mr Whittle were taking the party down a "very dark alley" and accused them of "pushing" the issue of Islamic extremism to an "extreme point" while ignoring other areas of policy.

In response, Ms Waters told the BBC in a statement: "It's a shame that UKIP members would indulge in the same smearing that has been aimed at them for years."

She added that she would continue to express her "opinions freely" and "speak to the marginalised and forgotten British public".

UKIP has bounced back from bouts of infighting before.

"We've come back more times than Sugar Ray Leonard," says West Midlands MEP Jim Carver in a reference to boxing's comeback king.

Image caption Paul Nuttall stood down as leader after the general election

He says it's important to have had a wide-ranging debate within the party and that he doesn't think Anne Marie Waters will win.

"I'm very confident she's not going to do half as well as is being portrayed. It seems to be a bit of a whirlwind in a little bubble on social media."

By Friday afternoon we'll know if he's right.

UKIP conference is normally a jolly affair, filled with big personalities, awash with purple banners and people dressed in their party's colours and members having a pint with Nigel Farage.

But this year, many are nervous as they wait to see what will happen to the party.

Also on Friday, UKIP's rebranding will be unveiled - a new logo and slogan are expected.

It's understood Mr Farage will not have a speaking spot on the podium this year but is expected to attend the gala dinner.

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Image caption AfD supporters celebrate their election result

On Saturday eyes will be on the first speech by a "senior" Alternative for Germany (AfD) figure - UKIP has not released a name - to take place in Britain since the party's historic success in the German elections.

But if the scenes of past electoral success are to return for UKIP then a turnaround in fortunes is in order - and that's one of the issues the new leader will be expected to address when he or she gives their first conference speech on Saturday.

Politics professor Matthew Goodwin, who has written a book on UKIP's rise in British politics, has doubts about how they will do without Nigel Farage at the helm.

"Without a competent and charismatic leader, the party will struggle to resuscitate its flagging numbers in the polls," he says.

The next UKIP leader certainly has their work cut out.

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