Steven Woolfe was the chosen one, but fell at first hurdle. He basked in the spotlight as the favourite to win. The charismatic former lawyer dwarfed his rivals in terms of name recognition, as much as he had been able to accrue under Mr Farage’s shadow. Polls and the bookies suggested the “Woolfe pack” would storm to victory, until the party’s National Executive Council decided that his late application meant he couldn’t stand.
This decision has outraged Faragistas, who now insist the party is “finished” if the NEC isn’t abolished. Some Ukippers fear that scrapping the NEC would end up consolidating the leader’s power as it would remove one of the major checks on anything they wanted to do. Mr Woolfe wanted to do just that if elected leader, so who else can the Faragistas turn to?
Unless Mr Farage reneges on his pledge to quit again, he’ll have to find someone to do that job among the remaining crop of candidates.Step forward Diane James, the woman bookies now put as the overwhelming favourite to succeed him. There was little sign that Mrs James would run until it emerged after nominations closed that she had put in a bid, which has raised suspicions as to why she did so in the end. “She was clearly thrust forward to do Nigel’s bidding after it became clear Woolfe wouldn’t make it”, one senior Ukipper mused to me.
Mr Farage and his allies were said to be in a “panic” over what to do if Mr Woolfe couldn’t run, so it’s perfectly possible that they decided upon Diane James, the party’s home affairs spokeswoman, as his replacement. She has numerous things in common with Mr Farage to boot, leading one Ukipper to archly dismiss her to me as “Nigel in a dress”.
Ukip MEP dismisses party’s ‘blokish’ image as outdatedPlay!01:06
Mrs James is a fellow member of the European Parliament for South East England, echoes his blunt rhetoric about Romanians and admiration for Vladimir Putin. She didn’t copy his praise word-for-word at least, choosing to hold up the Russian premier’s “strong leadership”. Mr Farage, on the other hand, emphasised Mr Putin’s“brilliant” skills as an “operator” in contrast to “weak” EU leaders.
The outgoing Ukip leader rewarded her for being so loyal in February by appointing her deputy chair of the party, replacing Suzanne Evansafter their dramatic falling-out. Mrs James showed she was more than happy speak up for Mr Farage a month later by appearing on TV to dismiss Ms Evans as a “woman scorned” and explain why it was right for the party to suspend her. She has occasionally wavered in her commitment to the party line, insisting during the referendum campaign that he had “already apologised” –when he had not – for the controversial ‘Breaking Point’ poster. I understand Mr Farage – who insisted publicly that he couldn’t “apologise for the truth” – was “furious” about her comments. “This is Diane’s problem,” one Ukip source told me, “she parrots Nigel but then gets it wrong”.
Diane James is evidently in Mr Farage’s good books. She was praised by him as an “excellent” candidate when she stood for the party in the Eastleigh by-election in 2013, and her elevation to be his deputy chairwoman shows her star is on the rise. The outgoing Ukip leader will hope she can take over the reins and tame the NEC that has thwarted his ambitions as of late. She has yet to indicate whether it would survive in her vision for the party, but some members suggest her answer will be a sign as to whether she can be truly independent of Mr Farage. “Revealing her approach towards the NEC is the only way Diane can answer it,” one says to me.
Ukip’s leadership contest should be the moment for the party to consider what role it wants to play in British politics. But the start of the process has seen many senior Ukippers look inwards, with Mr Farage and his allies shaping it as a battle between the snubbed pro-Woolfe supporters and the NEC.