The infighting around Nigel Farage, leader of the U.K. Independence Party, is about more than money or filling the top job: It’s about the campaign to take Britain out of the European Union.
While Farage led UKIP to third place in the May 7 election, picking up 12.6 percent of the vote, some in the party fear he may alienate the wider mass of voters whose support they need in the coming referendum on whether Britain should leave the EU.
“UKIP is a polarizing party,” said Robert Ford, co-author of “Revolt on the Right,” a study of UKIP. “When you take a chunk of the electorate that’s not particularly interested in the EU, they will often take it as a cue that UKIP is strongly opposed to this and conclude it may therefore be a good thing.”
Patrick O’Flynn, the party’s economics spokesman and a member of the European Parliament, on Thursday attacked Farage’s decision to resign as leader on May 8 and then withdraw his resignation three days later. He criticized unidentified advisers to Farage on Thursday, saying the party risked appearing “a personality cult.”
“It is our duty in UKIP to maximize our chances of winning an EU referendum,” O’Flynn told Sky News, while insisting he is loyal to Farage. “We have to be inclusive. We have to bring in groups of non-traditional supporters.”
O’Flynn’s argument echoes the case made by Douglas Carswell, the party’s sole House of Commons lawmaker. “Sometimes the most passionate advocates of change aren’t the best people for persuading the undecided,” he said on Monday, hours after what he called Farage’s “unresignation.”
Stuart Wheeler, founder and former chairman of IG Group Plc and one of UKIP’s biggest donors, said the party needs to broaden its appeal.
“The type of campaign that’s now needed has to be slightly less aggressive and more towards winning over the people in the center,” he told the BBC. “The people who voted for UKIP will vote for leaving the EU anyway, and the people who need to be won over are the people who are really not quite sure. They need a friendly, undivisive approach.”
Farage failed to win the parliamentary seat of South Thanet after a campaign in which he used television debates to make attacks on immigrants, demanding they be tested for HIV, and had the party’s national manifesto tailored to improve his chances in the district, on the coast southeast of London.
Farage became a “snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive” man during the campaign, O’Flynn was quoted as saying by the Times newspaper. Farage became increasingly snappy with journalists as election day approached and O’Flynn blamed advisers for his decision to attack the audience during one of the leaders’ TV debates before the election.
Carswell was asked on Monday who would lead the campaign to leave the EU and failed either to name Farage for that role or endorse his return to the leadership.
The next day, Carswell began a still-unresolved row with Farage about whether the party should claim all of the 650,000 pounds ($1 million) a year in government funding that it is entitled to since the election. “UKIP is supposed to be different,” Carswell told the BBC. “I don’t need 15 staff.” The party said Wednesday that the two men had met and there was an “ongoing discussion” about the money.
Arron Banks, a party donor, weighed in to defend Farage. “Patrick needs to look at himself before he goes around criticizing others,” he told the Financial Times. “They should let Nigel have a holiday after a long, hard election rather than plotting a coup d’etat.”
Polls show a mixed picture on British attitudes to the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner. Thirty-nine percent of voters are in favor of exiting against 40 percent wanting to stay, according to a Populus poll last month. The latest YouGov Plc poll gave supporters of staying in the EU a 12-point lead.