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Großbritannien Nigel Farage im Europaparlament
Image: Reuters/V. Kessler

UKIP gears up for another leadership contest

Samira Shackle
October 31, 2016

Chaos and financial problems have plagued the UK Independence Party since the Brexit referendum. Now, Suzanne Evans and Paul Nuttall are going head to head in UKIP's second contest to replace Nigel Farage in two months.


It has been an eventful few months for the UK Independence Party. After achieving its ultimate purpose of securing Britain's exit from the EU, UKIP is now facing its second leadership contest in as many months. Diane James, who was elected to replace Nigel Farage (pictured) as leader in September, stood down after just 18 days on the job.

Nominations closed Monday, with four candidates putting their names forward. The clear front-runner is Paul Nuttall, former chair of the party. His closest rival is Suzanne Evans, former deputy leader. A survey of UKIP councilors last week showed that 42 percent backed Nuttall, while just 22 percent supported Evans. The other two candidates are Peter Whittle, UKIP's culture spokesman, and John Rees Evans, who unsuccessfully contested a seat for the party in the 2015 general election.

In the days running up to the close of nominations, Farage's former aide Raheem Kassam attracted significant attention. In a dramatic turn of events, the 30-year-old withdrew his candidacy just hours before nominations closed, saying he did not think he would win. Kassam's withdrawal from the race further secures Nuttall's front-runner status.

"Ultimately, none of the candidates are anywhere like as well-known as Farage, and for many people UKIP is Farage," said Jim Waterson, politics editor at Britain's BuzzFeed site. "The sort of voters I'd think Evans appeals to are ex-Tories concerned about Europe to the extent they couldn't vote for David Cameron - to my mind, exactly the sort of person who would be attracted to Theresa May. Whereas Nuttall, who has repeatedly turned down the change to run in the past, probably has a message that would appeal more to northern seats."

Großbritanien Paul Nuttall
Nuttall opposes EU membership and blanket smoking bans for pubs Image: imago/ZUMA Press

'Hardest Brexit possible'

Whoever takes over as leader has a difficult task ahead. UKIP's purpose is no longer clear in the aftermath of June's referendum on EU membership, and the new leader will have to decide what direction to take the party in. In the last general election, UKIP won 4 million votes, although this only translated into one seat in Parliament. In the face of a less socially liberal Conservative Party, UKIP may struggle to retain some of that support.

"People who think UKIP will now dissolve into obscurity and become irrelevant are probably going to be disappointed," said Oliver Patel, research associate at the European Institute at University College London. "UKIP will want the hardest Brexit possible, so there will be a role for them challenging government decisions over issues like the single market and migration. It is too early to say for sure it's going to be a ‘hard Brexit.' If jobs start to go and inflation goes up significantly, then who knows what will happen."

The fact that the election must be repeated points to the chaos and division inside the party. Ironically, winning the battle on Britain's EU membership has prompted a dire financial situation for UKIP. "I can't imagine why anyone would want the job," BuzzFeed's Waterson said. "They are going to lose most of the party funding, and the job isn't actually paid. At the moment Farage is an MEP and has his own outside income that pays the bills for him, but in the future the leadership will need another job. Almost all of UKIP's prominent politicians are currently MEPs. They are about to lose out. Whoever becomes UKIP leader will have to spent a lot of time fundraising."

UKIP-Mitgliederin Suzanne Evans
Evans was suspended in March after she presented herself as a UKIP spokeswoman Image: picture alliance/empics/P. Toscano

In the wings

How big a role Farage will play in the months and years to come remains a question. He has been synonymous with UKIP in the public mind for years, and he had resigned as leader in both 2009 and 2015, only to return. Since the Brexit referendum, Farage has been focusing on the United States and supporting Donald Trump's presidential campaign, which suggests that he has new interests.

"I could see him staying behind the scenes," Waterson said. "I do genuinely think he might be serious this time about making a go of it in the States, but ultimately he's so far a cut above everyone else in UKIP when it comes to media performance, profile, recognition, it'll be very hard to avoid the temptation of wheeling him out every so often."

Kassam had positioned himself as the Faragist candidate. "Nigel is our legacy," he said as he announced his leadership bid. "Our legacy is Nigel." It has been speculated that Kassam's withdrawal from the race suggests Farage is losing his grip on the party.

Yet the former leader attracts more media attention than any of the candidates to replace him. "Farage is really the only person in UKIP that is known up and down the country, and it'll be very difficult to replace him," the European Institute's Patel said. "UKIP has a clear role to play given the dilemmas the government will have to face up to when economic reality starts to bite. But whether they will have the leadership to mobilize support around it remains to be seen. They will definitely try."

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