Steven Woolfe is seen within Ukip as having destroyed his chances of becoming the party’s next leader in the wake his much-publicised scuffle and a flirtation with the Conservatives, according to senior Ukip figures.
Woolfe, the telegenic barrister turned MEP, remains in the race to succeed Diane James, and is still the bookmakers’ clear favourite.
However, opinion within Ukip appears to be shifting towards the former deputy leader Paul Nuttall as a unifying candidate for a party beset by an array of divisions and grudges in recent years and rocking from the swift departure of James.
Jonathan Arnott, another Ukip MEP and a member of the party’s national executive committee (NEC), said that if Woolfe remained in the race he would face “massive opposition” among MEPs.
“Therefore, he could not possibly be a unifying force,” Arnott said. “Leaving aside any questions of who was in the right and who was in the wrong about the incident, there’s still a question of whether he can unify the party. Fundamentally, the answer to that is no.”
Nuttall, the Bootle-born MEP for the north-west of England, is seen as capable of connecting with disaffected Labour voters. He did not stand in the last leadership contest.
Woolfe is the subject of an ongoing party investigation over an alleged altercation with a fellow Ukip MEP, Mike Hookem, last week at the European parliament in Strasbourg. Woolfe spent three days in hospital after collapsing following the fracas.
While the details of what happened remain disputed, a series of senior Ukip figures told the Guardian they feared the incident was another example of Woolfe’s sometimes chaotic character. Woolfe missed the last leadership contest after filing nomination papers 17 minutes late.
They said Woolfe would be most damaged in the eyes of Ukip members by the news that he considered defecting to the Conservatives shortly before the leadership vacancy arose.
Bill Etheridge, the MEP who has said he will stand again for leader after finishing third in September, said Woolfe was “very talented but flawed”. He said: “For me, I cannot support him. I can’t have faith in the man. I don’t think he has the temperament to do it.”
One leading party figure, who asked not to be named, said a series of members had expressed dismay at Woolfe’s talks with the Conservatives, and other mishaps. “That’s what people are saying to me,” the source said. “It’s just been a catalogue of disasters – the late nomination, when his party membership lapsed, the [alleged] punch-up. It’s just been chaos after chaos after chaos.”
The upcoming leadership vote is seen as a potential turning point for Ukip, which came third by popular votes in the 2015 general election, but is seeking to re-establish its identity following the EU referendum and the departure of Nigel Farage as leader.
In another key moment, party members will then choose seven new members of the NEC, about half its complement, in late November.
The NEC has previously been at odds with the leadership – it upheld Woolfe’s exclusion from the last contest despite Farage’s entreaties – and the party hopes the new members can bring about greater cooperation in a party still divided into several factions.
As well as Woolfe and Etheridge, another confirmed candidate is Raheem Kassam, the UK editor of the rightwing news website Breitbart, who is seen as an outside bet to win.
Among the possible runners is Suzanne Evans, who also missed out on the last contest after being suspended from the party in the wake of a fallout with Farage. She is understood to be considering whether to run, as is Elizabeth Jones, an NEC member who came last in September’s contest.
Several leading Ukip members said they hoped Nuttall would come forward as a unity candidate. He did not stand last time for family reasons, and friends say he is weighing up whether he wants the personal scrutiny that comes with the job.
Arnott said Nuttall was seen by many as “the only person who could do the job”. He added: “I suspect you’d find there would a considerable thinning-out of the field if Paul was to stand.”
A spokesman for Woolfe said he had “no comment on the views expressed”.