Wales politics

UKIP 2016 conference splits and celebrations

Nigel Farage in his seat at the European Parliament Image copyright EPA
Image caption After Nigel Farage's departure as leader and the Brexit vote, UKIP faces major questions

UKIP's annual conference begins in Bournemouth on Friday, when the party's new leader will be announced and its deep divisions will be brought into sharp focus.

Members from Wales said they are looking forward to discussing their electoral success in May's assembly election over the next two days, as they join UKIP members for "a party like no other" on England's south coast.

They will have a "golden opportunity" to celebrate "changing the course of British history", UKIP's website proudly states.

But beyond the celebrations, there are also big questions to answer this weekend.

Where does the party go from here, having achieved its central aim? And who will be at the helm?

We will get the answer to that question at lunchtime on Friday when Nigel Farage's successor is announced.

Diane James, a member of the European Parliament for South East England, is the favourite.

Lisa Duffy, Elizabeth Jones, Bill Etheridge and Phillip Broughton are the other candidates.

Jonathan Arnott has withdrawn from the race and it was decided Steven Woolfe would not be allowed to stand after he missed the deadline to apply by 17 minutes.

Image caption Divisions between Neil Hamilton and Nathan Gill have been both bitter and public

One of the new leader's main priorities will be to heal the deep internal divisions that are now clear for all to see, particularly in Wales.

Having won the party's first seats in Cardiff Bay in May, this conference should be an opportunity for the party's Welsh members to boast about their electoral success.

However, it will also be a chance to scrutinise the tensions that have already seen the number of UKIP assembly members cut from seven to six.

The party's leader in Wales, Nathan Gill, now sits as an independent member, although he continues to represent UKIP in the European Parliament.

The party's members in the assembly are led by Neil Hamilton and the bad blood between him and Mr Gill reflects a split that threatens the party at a UK level: between those such as Mr Gill who support the outgoing leader's approach, and those including Mr Hamilton who want a change of direction.

Mr Gill and Mr Hamilton will both attend the conference, both keen to know who will be crowned leader and what the result could mean for them.

Unsurprisingly, Mr Gill is backing Ms James, who is widely regarded as the Faragist candidate.

"She will take UKIP in the direction we need to go," he has said. "Some of the leadership candidates want to take us to the right.

"That's something I am opposed to and I know Diane's opposed to that too."

Image copyright BBC/Getty
Image caption Leadership contenders: Elizabeth Jones, Lisa Duffy, Philip Broughton, Diane James and Bill Etheridge

Mr Gill also believes Ms James would try to change the party in Wales and "stamp her authority" on any individuals causing trouble.

Mr Hamilton, on the other hand, is supporting Ms Duffy: "Lisa is the authentic voice of grassroots members in UKIP and she would be a collegiate leader, which is what we want."

Under Farage, Mr Hamilton said UKIP had been a "one-man band".

"We can't replicate that and wouldn't want to," he said.

But should Ms James win on Friday, does the assembly group leader fear his position could be in jeopardy?

"There is absolutely nothing anybody can do to change the leadership of the group in the assembly because that's entirely in the hands of assembly members," he insisted.

"They elected me rather than Nathan Gill."

Welsh party members close to Mr Gill told me they will be celebrating if Ms James wins.

However, they will not be in Bournemouth.

One said he would be staying away from this year's conference because he had "had enough". Another said the party had "had its day".

But others, from the opposite wing of the party, are looking forward to the next two days, keen to show supporters from other parts of the UK how "robust" the party in Wales remains, and how to win seats.

That will be the aim again at the local elections in 2017. This weekend will go a long way towards showing how the party, with its new leader, intends to achieve that.

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