Ukip elects Diane James as new party leader

First female leader will inherit party riven by infighting and complicated by Nigel Farage staying to shape its EU strategy

Ukip has chosen its first female leader, Diane James, who immediately signalled she wanted Nigel Farage to remain at the heart of the party and moved to sideline some of his critics.

The former businesswoman won the contest with almost half of the vote and the backing of some key Farage allies, including the party donor Arron Banks.

Her election at the Ukip autumn conference means six of the political parties represented at Westminster are led by women. James has already faced calls from some Ukip colleagues to unify the party after months of bitter infighting over Farage’s influence and strategy.

Paul Nuttall, the outgoing deputy leader, said the feuding was a “cancer” eating at the heart of Ukip and called on Farage to step away. But James made it clear that she wanted Farage by her side and she was happy for him to stay on as leader of the party in Brussels, which gives him influence over EU strategy and funding.

“I think both Nigel and I made it very, very plain that there would be help running between us. The legacy he has bequeathed with this party, the experience, the knowledge, I would be nuts to ignore it. But he is not going to be a backseat driver.”

Asked if she would step down if Farage decided he wanted to return as leader, James did not rule out that possibility.

“He made it abundantly clear he doesn’t intend coming back. He has left that door open, I totally appreciate that. But he was clear with his language today he is stepping away from the leadership role and handing that mantle to myself.”

She went on to defend Farage’s controversial “breaking point” poster during the referendum showing a queue of migrants across Europe.

“If people don’t want a reality check about the problems with Merkel’s open door migration policy, people in those volumes on those roads, then quite frankly they need a big, big pinch. That picture was absolutely accurate in what it shows and I’ve got no problem with it at all,” she said.

James signalled she was not intending to take a conciliatory approach towards dissenters in the party.

One of her first acts as leader was to tear up the conference agenda in order to remove her rival leadership candidates and Neil Hamilton, the leader of Ukip in the Welsh assembly, from speaking slots on the main stage.

The move immediately triggered a row with Hamilton, a former Tory minister, informed by the press in a corridor that he had been replaced by Nathan Gill, an MEP, with whom he has been having an acrimonious public battle for control of the party in Wales. “This is a rather bizarre change in the programme,” Hamilton said. “It seems a rather bizarre way to unite a party,” he said, before offering to go and find James for a joint press conference.

“I seem to have been replaced by 10 minutes of coffee and five minutes of Nathan Gill. It looks like I’m no longer on the agenda. But I’m still the Ukip member of the assembly in Wales,” said Hamilton.

Jay Beecher, campaign manager for one of the losing candidates, Lisa Duffy, said James’s rivals should have been given a chance to speak and thank their supporters in person. “We accept the membership decision,” he said. “However, what we need is a leader who is going to promote unity. For us to be a successful party we have to come together. It’s a bit of a slap in the face and a bit discourteous.”

But James defended the move, saying: “That is exactly what the new leader is able to do. It’s my prerogative. I chose to change the programme. It’s not a purge.”

She was backed by Steven Woolfe, who told the Guardian: “As a leader, she should be entitled to look at the agenda of a conference like this and put her stamp on it straight away.”

Another problem in James’s inbox is what to do about Douglas Carswell, Ukip’s only MP, who was attacked by Farage on Friday for “doing nothing” for the party. At a press conference, James revealed she had not spoken to Carswell for about three months, including the whole period of the leadership contest.

“If Douglas would like to suggest a meeting, I will happily entertain it,” James said, saying it depended on their schedules but meeting those in and seeking elected office was a priority.

She suggested she would try to stand in upcoming byelections, suggesting she could make an attempt in David Cameron’s former constituency of Witney in Oxfordshire.

James rose to prominence in Ukip after coming second in the Eastleigh byelection of 2013, before taking on roles as home affairs spokesperson and deputy chair.

As the first Ukip leader since the EU referendum, she faces a battle to keep the party relevant given Theresa May’s promise to take the UK out of the EU and bring back grammar schools.

James wasted no time in delivering a message to the prime minister that Ukip intends to put her under pressure by pushing for a “hard Brexit”.

“From one grammar school girl to another, stop the faff, stop the fudge and the farce. Get on with it. Invoke article 50 and give Ukip the best Christmas present,” she said.

Speaking after the result, James claimed that “threats to the Brexit result are increasing every day”. She listed Ukip’s demands as: “No to soft Brexit. No to single market controls and no to unrestricted freedom of movement into this country. If they come in, they come in on a fair basis.”

Farage warned May that she must pass three tests to make sure “Brexit means Brexit”: regaining control of fishing rights, getting out of the single market and returning to the old British passport.

Female leaders

A record number of the UK’s political parties’ leaders are now female after James’s victory.

James is the latest woman to win an internal contest, with her nearest rival, Lisa Duffy, also a woman. It comes the week after Caroline Lucas returned as leader of the Greens in a job share with Jonathan Bartley, taking over from another woman, Natalie Bennett.

Earlier in the summer, Theresa May took over as leader of the Conservatives – becoming the party’s second female prime minister – after a straight fight against another woman, Andrea Leadsom. Arlene Foster became the first female first minister of Northern Ireland in January as leader of the Democratic Unionist party.

Before that, Nicola Sturgeon took over from Alex Salmond as Scottish National party leader and first minister after the independence referendum.

In Scotland, Ruth Davidson heads the Scottish Conservatives and Kezia Dugdale is in charge of Scottish Labour.

However, the longest serving female leader is Leanne Woods who has been at the helm of Plaid Cymru since 2012.

It leaves Labour and the Lib Dems as the only major parties to never have had female leaders – although Labour had Harriet Harman and Margaret Beckett in interim positions.

Jess Phillips, the new chair of Labour women in parliament, tweeted: “New generation of women leaders. Still women in the country remain unequal. Labour’s 100 women MPs are the force for progress for women.

“Yes Labour should be embarrassed about women in leadership but we still have the most effective female force in parliament now and in the past.”


Rowena Mason and Peter Walker

The GuardianTramp

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