UKIP elects Henry Bolton leader in ‘shock’ result

In Depth: Bolton leads a party split between Eurosceptics and Islamophobic nationalists

UKIP leader Henry Bolton
(Image credit: BEN STANSALL/AFP/Getty Images)

Henry Bolton, a former British army officer and OBE whose campaign was backed by Nigel Farage, has been elected UKIP’s new leader in a surprise result that will define the party’s new direction.

The 54-year-old former police officer edged out six other candidates at the UKIP conference in Torquay today, fending off bookie favourites Anne Marie Waters, who ran on an anti-Islam platform, and deputy leader Peter Whittle, who supported UKIP’s burqa ban.

Bolton told the media that pressuring Theresa May's government into a hard Brexit will be UKIP's “core task” and that UKIP would fight for “a nation that is proud to be called British.” Bolton has vowed to restore Nigel Farage's legacy by restoring UKIP’s “relevance and authority”.

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Asked about Islam, Bolton said: "Islam is of concern... There is an issue to be discussed. I abhor the rhetoric that we are at war with Islam."

Farage told Channel 4 that Bolton was “the most competent” and tweeted about his “delight” with the result.

In what Business Insider described as a “shock result”, the ex-soldier won with 30% of the vote. Waters came second with 21.3% of the 12,915 votes cast and Whittle placed fifth, the BBC reports.

A victory for Waters was the “nightmare scenario” for most within the party, says The Guardian, adding that almost all UKIP MEPs pledged to quit if she took over, and warning that the resulting exodus of moderate members would further shrink the party’s already narrow base.

UKIP’s last chance?

Now, having elected its fourth leader in just over a year, “UKIP is potentially at its last crossroads”, Matthew Goodwin of the University of Kent told The Economist.

The party is roughly split in two factions: those who believe the party should stick to its Eurosceptic roots and focus on ensuring the government delivers a hard Brexit, and those who believe the future lies in the far-right Islamophobic nationalism simmering across Europe.

Last year’s EU referendum was the culmination of a 20-year fight that saw UKIP rise from a fringe group to a game-changing political force.

But before the champagne had gone flat, the party had an urgent challenge to solve – finding a leader. Having achieved his Brexit goal, Nigel Farage, the face of the Leave campaign, announced he was stepping down.

With their only household name out of the picture, UKIP started hunting for a new leader who could help the party capitalise on the eurosceptic zeitgeist before it was too late.

Farage’s successor, Diane James, lasted just 18 days before resigning, saying trying to unify the party behind her leadership was like “bang[ing] your head against a brick wall”.

Paul Nuttall’s tenure was longer but no less inglorious. Elected in November 2016, his attempts to re-energise the party were overshadowed by allegations he had falsely claimed to have a PhD and lied about being present at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

On 8 June 2017, as the extent of UKIP’s dire performance at the polls became clear – 1.8% of the vote down from 12.6% in 2015 – Nuttall tendered his resignation, leaving the party leaderless once again.

UKIP at a crossroads

UKIP’s fork-in-the-road moment mirrors the history of Germany’s nationalist party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), which recently won the backing of Farage.

Originally founded in 2013 as a niche Eurosceptic party, AfD re-focused its ire on immigrants and Islam in 2015 and harnessed the backlash to Angela Merkel’s open door policy on refugees. In the process, it became the third-largest party in parliament in this year’s federal election.

UKIP top brass are certainly not shying away from forging closer bonds with AfD. However, AfD’s behind-the-scenes predicament offers a cautionary tale for UKIP members eager to follow it down the path of overt anti-Islam nationalism.

Hours after the AfD election result, AfD leader Frauke Petry stunned members by announcing that she would sit as an independent, allegedly over misgivings about AfD’s “radicalisation”. Several other party officials have followed her.

Political scientist Hans Vorlander told Deutchlandfunk radio that the AfD election victory had exacerbated existing tensions between the moderate and hardline wings of the party.

Before UKIP lurches further to the right, the party must consider whether there is an appetite for AfD-style nationalism in the UK. Despite being caricatured by opponents as a party of frothing xenophobic extremists, the evidence suggests that UKIP’s base is more politically diverse than it may appear.

Ahead of the UK general election, many analysts predicted that UKIP had acted as a “gateway drug”, luring Labour voters to the right, and that the Tories would therefore reap the benefits of UKIP’s falling star – but it didn’t pan out that way, says the Financial Times.

In fact, in many seats, former UKIP voters “seemed to divide fairly evenly between Labour and the Conservatives”, suggesting that beyond a shared euroscepticism their political values were difficult to pin down and making today’s election all the more crucial.

Each of seven candidates offers members their answer to what Sky News’s Lewis Goodall calls “the most potent of political pickles” – with its original mission accomplished, what does UKIP stand for?

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