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UKIP’s NEC will meet today in Manchester, and the agenda is set to be more than a little fraught.
After Paul Nuttall’s torrid experience, and embarrassing result, in Stoke-on-Trent Central, a party already prone to vicious factional infighting appears to be at daggers drawn once more. One NEC member described Nuttall to me as “weak and walking wounded” in the aftermath of the by-election, which is never a good reputation for a party leader to develop – particularly when they became leader by default in the first place. Elsewhere, senior UKIP figures openly mock Nuttall as “Andy Capp”, a reference to the layabout cartoon character inspired by Nuttall’s ever-present tweed cap.
Arron Banks, the multi-millionaire donor who has kept them afloat thus far, demanded over the weekend that he be made chairman and given the power to purge Douglas Carswell, the sole UKIP MP, among others. He has made similar demands before, and is now threatening to withdraw all financial support unless he gets his way.
For a party whose money troubles are set to get worse when Brexit abolishes their lucrative band of MEPs, Banks’s threat has power. The same NEC source says: “After Stoke [the] future is bleak and we need money. To me Arron is [the] best hope…if we don’t accept Banks he will set up [a] new outfit with Farage”.
Banks has certainly been testing the water for a new party for some time. History – and Leave.EU’s chaotic record – suggests that such an outfit would struggle, but that matters rather less than the damage it would do to UKIP simply by existing. He seems to have the will, as well as the means, to go through with his threat regardless of the wisdom of doing so.
So, with a severely weakened leader and a desperate need for cash, it’s not impossible that the NEC will accept his terms. If they do, it would mean not just kicking out Carswell but also various other senior figures whom Banks dislikes. Some are uncomfortable about the idea of more infighting, while others dislike the prospect of appearing to be bought outright by a donor. Peter Whittle, UKIP’s Deputy Leader, told Marr yesterday that “if Arron were to take his money, there are other people”.
On the face of it, it doesn’t sound like this week is going to be much better than last week for UKIP or Nuttall. Another NEC member predicts that today’s meeting will be “emotional” – regardless of the outcome, that looks likely.