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UKIP’s future uncertain as Britain heads toward Brexit

On Thursday, two leading party figures – Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem – got into a fight that left Mr. Woolfe collapsing on the floor and being rushed to hospital.

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Just when it seemed British politics couldn't get any more bizarre, along comes UKIP.

Not that long ago the United Kingdom Independence Party was basking in glory. Its decades-long quest to pull Britain out of the European Union had finally been realized in June and party leader Nigel Farage was being hailed around the world for his political acumen in leading the Brexit charge.

Mr. Farage abruptly resigned in July and the party's fortunes have gone downhill ever since. There have been defections to the Conservatives, internal feuds and a leadership race so botched that the winner, Diane James, quit this week after just 18 days as leader saying she didn't have enough authority and felt fearful after being spat at while waiting for a train. And then things turned farcical.

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On Thursday, two leading party figures – Steven Woolfe and Mike Hookem – got into a fight that left Mr. Woolfe collapsing on the floor and being rushed to hospital. By Friday, party officials were scrambling to figure out what had happened and UKIP's biggest donor was calling for the entire executive to be suspended. Meanwhile, Mr. Farage returned as interim leader but made it clear he won't stick around.

"I have done my bit," he said when asked if he would stay as leader. "It is a pretty rotten job being a leader of a political party and I think being leader of UKIP is more rotten than the others."

UKIP has never been a typical political party. It's more of a movement started by Mr. Farage and others in the early 1990s with the sole purpose of getting Britain out of the EU. It's had some political success along the way, particularly in elections to the European Parliament, which is based on proportional representation, a system that benefits smaller parties. But UKIP won just one seat in Britain's national election in 2015 and Mr. Farage was marginalized during the EU referendum by the official Vote Leave campaign, which worried about his anti-immigration rhetoric.

Now that Britain has voted to leave the EU, UKIP's raison d'être is in question and rifts have opened up over those loyal to Mr. Farage and his detractors. Mr. Woolfe had been a Farage supporter but when he tried to run for the leadership last summer he was disqualified by the executive because he had missed the filing deadline by 17 minutes. His disqualification sparked a heated internal battle that saw several senior members quit.

Ms. James won the leadership in September but she appeared uneasy and resigned three weeks later saying she didn't have the support of party officials "to implement changes I believe necessary." That led to speculation Mr. Woolfe would run again, but when he mused about joining the Conservatives this week he got into a heated argument with Mr. Hookem. Both are members of the European Parliament and according to Mr. Hookem they took their dispute outside a meeting room at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. A scuffle ensued and Mr. Woolfe hit his head on something. He collapsed two hours later and has been recovering in hospital. Mr. Hookem has denied throwing any punches, calling the fracas "handbags at dawn," and both men have pledged to patch up their differences.

Compounding the party's problems is new Prime Minister Theresa May, who took a hard line on Brexit and immigration this week during the Conservative Party convention. Her message won plaudits among many UKIP supporters, raising more questions about the party's relevancy.

"UKIP's future has never looked more uncertain," said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Kent. "Externally, it is under pressure from a more traditional brand of conservatism while internally the party is suffering from an array of problems."

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Tim Bale, a politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said that, while UKIP may not survive, its brand of politics likely will.

"True, the May government seems to be doing its best to steal radical right voters at the moment, and UKIP seems to be doing its best to shoot itself in the foot," he said. "But there may well still be a space for a party that will outbid even a right-wing Tory administration on immigration – especially if that party is prepared, as many of its ilk in continental Europe and Scandinavia seem prepared, to exploit rising levels of Islamophobia."

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About the Author
European Correspondent

Paul Waldie has been an award-winning journalist with The Globe and Mail for more than 10 years. He has won three National Newspaper Awards for business coverage and been nominated for a Michener Award for meritorious public service journalism. He has also won a Sports Media Canada award for sports writing and authored a best-selling biography of the McCain family. More

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