UKIP future in balance as far right takes hold

The future of UKIP is hanging by a thread.

Bill Etheridge has quit the UKIP leadership race in a bid for unity among libertarian candidates
Bill Etheridge has quit the UKIP leadership race in a bid for unity among libertarian candidates

Since hitting its pinnacle with the EU referendum - which would never have happened if it was not for UKIP - the party has been on a remarkable downward trajectory.

Its first and last MP Douglas Carswell quit in March, saying there was 'no point' to UKIP anymore.

Former leader Nigel Farage, the heart and soul of UKIP, has rapidly lost interest in the party he turned into the country's third biggest.

In May it lost all but one of the local council seats it contested, and this week it lost control of Thanet District Council, the last local authority it had a majority on.

West Midlands MEP Bill Etheridge

In between times came the General Election, which saw UKIP collapse from 3.8 million votes in 2015 to under 600,000.

The failure led to Paul Nuttall - UKIP's third leader in a year - quitting. While he has hardly been seen or heard from since, the party finds itself at the centre of one of the most bizarre power struggles in living memory.

This week one of the 12 - yes, 12 - candidates for leader stepped down in what appears to be a last ditch bid to unite the so-called libertarian wing of the party against the far right.

West Midlands MEP and party defence spokesman Bill Etheridge has long standing desires to lead UKIP, but he believes his presence on the ballot paper will only serve to split the vote for UKIP traditionalists.

He says it dawned on him during a recent hustings event in London that the majority of the candidates were 'basically saying exactly the same thing'.

"There are nine or 10 of us, all of a libertarian ilk, who pretty much want the same future for UKIP," said Mr Etheridge, who came third in the first leadership contest of 2016.

"The problem is that no one is willing to back out, with the blindingly obvious result being that we split the vote and hand over the party to the fascists that want to turn UKIP into something we have not seen in politics since the 1930s.

"I have taken the decision to step aside in the leadership contest in the hope that together we can stop this from happening."

He says his main concern lies with former Labour member Anne Marie Waters, founder of the anti-Muslim Sharia Watch pressure group.

She has described Islam as 'evil' and a 'totalitarian and supremacist faith commanded to world domination'.

Former EDL leader Tommy Robinson, with whom she formed the anti-Islam group Pegida UK, has played a central role in her campaign.

Current favourite, deputy leader Peter Whittle, is also widely disliked by the libertarians for his anti-Islam views.

He was behind UKIP’s 'integration agenda' in its General Election manifesto, which included proposals to ban full-face veils from being worn in public.

Meanwhile the list of libertarians aiming for the top job reads like a who's who of minor league politicians.

The better known candidates include Scottish MEP David Coburn, who once compared an SNP minister to convicted terrorist Abu Hamza and described Nicola Sturgeon as 'helmet hairdo'.

Then there's Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire MEP Jane Collins, who faces possible bankruptcy after failing to pay damages to three Labour MPs over remarks she made about the Rotherham child abuse scandal.

Yorkshire and Humber MEP Mike Hookem has also put his name forward. As Mr Etheridge's running mate last year, he was involved in a much-publicised altercation with previous leadership frontrunner Steven Woolfe.

Others include Henry Bolton, who came second in the Kent police and crime commissioner election in 2016; London Assembly member David Kurten; former leadership candidate John Rees-Evans; and South Gloucestershire councillor Ben Walker.

The problem for Mr Etheridge's wing of the party is that there is no political heavyweight to rally behind.

He has offered himself up as a broker to bring together candidates from the Farage wing of the party, but it is hard to play kingmaker when you have no idea who should be handed the golden ticket.

"We need to focus our minds and look at who has the best chance of winning," he said.

"John Rees-Evans is probably running the most dynamic campaign, but if the election was tomorrow I don't think he would have enough support to beat Anne Marie Waters or Peter Whittle."

Nominations for leadership close today with the result set to be announced at the party conference at the end of September following a members' ballot.

UKIP membership dropped from 46,000 in 2015 to 39,000 in 2016, with the number expected to have fallen further this year.

However, reports suggest up to 1,000 new members joined since the General Election, the vast majority of which are said to be far right activists.

One thing seems certain.

Anti-Islam candidate Anne Marie Waters

Victory for either Mr Whittle or Ms Waters could see up to 18 of the party's 20 MEPs quit UKIP, including Messrs Etheridge and Farage, as well as West Midlands MEP Jim Carver.

Such a scenario would surely see the end of UKIP in all but name.

As Mr Farage pointed out recently, UKIP was seen as largely irrelevant by voters in the General Election. Winning them back will be no easy task, even if the far right takeover fails to gain traction.

Yet critics argue that UKIP's days have been numbered since the Brexit vote, with the party having failed to address any of the prominent issues of the day.

Kate Andrews, from the Institute of Economic Affairs, said that the party comes across as 'woefully unaware' of the bigger challenges that lie ahead as the UK leaves the EU, such as negotiating trade policies.

"It is extremely difficult to be an active force in politics without a decent share of elected representatives," she added.

"With no MPs and a downhill trajectory for local representatives, the party no longer has the tools it needs to influence.

"No doubt, there has been a major loss of appetite – and loss of relevance – for the single-issue party."

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