ONCE again, the UK Independence Party finds itself living in interesting times after an MEP, considered to be one of the favourites to replace short-lived Nigel Farage replacement Diane James, was hospitalised following an ‘altercation’ between UKIP MEPs at the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Steven Woolfe, a 49-year-old barrister and Aberystwyth University graduate, apparently collapsed after suffering two ‘epilepsy-style’ fits following a heated meeting in which he asked fellow UKIP AM and armed forces veteran Mike Hookem to ‘take it outside’.
Mr Hookem has denied punching Mr Woolfe and, in an interview with the national press, accused his fellow party member of exaggerating the extent of his injuries.
One of the first to comment on the matter was the leader of UKIP in Wales, Neil Hamilton, who told the BBC he had heard that, following an argument, Mr Woolfe had ‘picked a fight with someone and came off worst’.
This was swiftly attacked by Nigel Farage, among others, and Mr Hamilton initially denied making the statement in an episode of Question Time filmed on the night of the incident (Thursday, October 6) until being forced into a somewhat embarrassing climb-down by host David Dimbleby.
Mr Woolfe was widely viewed as the favourite to succeed Nigel Farage, until he was disqualified from the leadership race for submitting his application 17 minutes late – something that was blamed on a ‘server error’. However, after Diane James quit the top job, to be replaced on an interim basis by Nigel Farage (again), his name came back into contention.
His candidacy, should it happen, was endorsed by multi-millionaire Conservative-turned-UKIP backer Arron Banks, who writing for the Daily Express on the weekend said that: “We just need a capable leader like Steven in charge, and the hopeless amateurs on its National Executive Committee cleaned out – along with Douglas Carswell, Neil Hamilton and the rest of the slimy, Tory turncoats pulling their strings.
“If that can’t be done, I’m afraid that myself and a number of other senior figures backing the party will have to move on to bigger and better things,” he added.
While questions could be raised about whether a man who gave more than £300,000 in donations to the Conservatives can legitimately describe anyone else as a ‘Tory turncoat’, these remarks hint at another divide within an already-divided party.
Former leader, interim leader, and easily UKIP’s most recognisable figure Nigel Farage is also no fan of the aforementioned Carswell, and he recently described the prospect of Neil Hamilton leading the party as ‘a horror story’. Mr Hamilton had already ruled himself out of the leadership contest at this point, suggesting that ‘my wife would kill me’.
The leader of UKIP in Wales hit back at Mr Banks’ remarks: “For months now I’ve been on the receiving end of a tirade of vilification from Arron Banks and his followers,” Mr Hamilton told the media.
“A lot of it is appalling abuse; he has emailed my wife and insulted her and this is the sort of thing that simply cannot be tolerated.
“Arron Banks has said Douglas Carswell, our only MP, is semi-autistic and he has referred disparagingly to his wonky chin and so on.
“What are we doing permitting people like this to run amok inside our party?”
The idea of expelling Mr Hamilton from the party could be problematic, especially given that he is the second person to lead UKIP in Wales this year, and will be serving as AM in the Senedd until 2021. UKIP’s Senedd presence has already decreased by a seventh as a result of their former leader in Wales, Nathan Gill, leaving the Whip and remaining in y Siambr as an Independent, in spite of still being a UKIP MEP.
It is also worth noting that Mr Hamilton leads the largest UKIP group in any British parliament. If UKIP enjoyed similar representation in Westminster, they would have around 75 MPs – or 65 and 10 independents. It is, therefore, rather difficult to argue that Wales has not been a success story for UKIP. However, this failed to stop Nathan Gill being overlooked for the role of Senedd leader and apparently dismissed from his position as Leader in Wales by the NEC.
Given that the British public has now voted to leave the EU, UKIP must, by definition, undergo a process of reinvention or face irrelevance. However, the direction this will take is not necessarily clear. Attempts to target working class voters in Labour strongholds have, in spite of an improved showing in the 2015 elections, not translated into Westminster seats, and as the Labour party is has found out, widespread media coverage of internal rifts do not inspire the electorate with confidence.
Whoever wins the next leadership contest will have to reunite a divided party and lead it into the mainstream if UKIP are to avoid becoming a historical footnote, and it has been queried whether someone willing to resort to fisticuffs with one of their colleagues would be the best person for the job. The Conservative Party’s move into UKIP territory on certain policies, including Brexit strategy and education, will also make it more difficult to pick up votes on the Right. However, with both of the largest parties currently embroiled in internal squabbles of their own, this could be far from the worst time for UKIP to start building for the next general election.