The UK Independence party was consumed by infighting after its ruling committee blocked Nigel Farage’s favoured successor from standing in the forthcoming leadership election.
Steven Woolfe, an MEP who was the bookmakers’ favourite for the role, submitted his nomination 17 minutes late on Sunday due to what he called a “technical issue”.
Ukip’s national executive committee said it had decided by a “clear majority” that the missed deadline made him ineligible. Three of the 19-member committee resigned in protest.
The decision triggered a furious response from Mr Farage’s supporters, who accused the committee of having exercised a coup on behalf of Ukip’s MP Douglas Carswell and Welsh Assembly member Neil Hamilton.
Pollsters argue that Ukip, which was Britain’s third-biggest party by votes in the 2015 general election, could make significant inroads into working class areas in the north and Wales, which voted Leave in the EU referendum.
Mr Woolfe, himself from Manchester, had pledged to make it the “new home” for Labour voters. On Wednesday he said the NEC was “not fit for purpose”, but did not mention the possibility of taking legal action.
Ukip has now suffered months of internal strife, centred on a personal battle between Mr Farage, who focused on reducing immigration, and Mr Carswell, his one-time ally who has embraced a gentler, free-trade message. The two men are not on speaking terms.
Three of the NEC’s six approved candidates are women, meaning that Ukip could have its first female leader before Labour or the Liberal Democrats.
The candidates are Diane James, Bill Etheridge and Jonathan Arnott, all of them MEPs, Phillip Broughton, a former parliamentary candidate, Liz Jones, a member of the NEC, and Lisa Duffy, a Cambridgeshire councillor. Ms Duffy has the support of Mr Carswell.
The leadership contest comes after Mr Farage announced last month his decision to step down, saying that he had achieved his goal of winning the referendum on EU membership. Paul Nuttall, the MEP and initial favourite to succeed him, did not stand, and Suzanne Evans, an aide to Mr Carswell, was barred from the race because her membership was suspended.
That left Mr Woolfe, an amateur poet who promised to increase Ukip’s presence in the north of England, as the frontrunner. However, his campaign was dogged by questions about whether his membership of Ukip had lapsed. He also admitted failing to declare a drink-driving conviction. The NEC said his membership had not been an issue in its decision to exclude him.
Candidates for the leadership have not yet given details of the policies they would pursue. Mr Etheridge is in favour of bringing back the death penalty, and Ms Duffy has said Muslim state schools should be abolished. The winner of the election is due to be announced at the party’s conference in September.
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