Diane James Becomes UKIP Leader Vowing to Oppose ‘Soft Brexit’

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Diane James leaves the stage after she is introduced at the UKIP Autumn Conference in Bournemouth, on the southern coast of England, on Sept. 16, 2016.

Photographer: Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty Images
  • New leader says UKIP is ‘the opposition party in waiting’
  • Pledges to keep pressure on Theresa May to deliver Brexit

The U.K. Independence Party elected a former businesswoman to succeed Nigel Farage as leader, with the task of redefining the party after it achieved its primary aim of getting Britain out of the European Union.

Diane James, a member of the European Parliament, won with 47 percent of the vote among party members, UKIP announced at its annual conference in Bournemouth on England’s south coast on Friday. There were four other candidates.

James, 56, joins French National Front leader Marine Le Pen and Frauke Petry of the Alternative for Germany party as a woman at the helm of an anti-establishment party. She vowed to keep pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May to deliver on the June 23 referendum vote, attacking “remainiacs” who want a “soft Brexit,” and pledged to build “a winning political machine” able to gain seats in the U.K. Parliament.

“The threats to the referendum outcome are increasing by the day,” James told delegates. May should “stop the faff, stop the fudge and the farce and get on with it.”

‘Catastrophic Mess’

Following Farage poses a challenge for the new leader. Outspoken and charismatic, Farage took the party from relative political obscurity and turned it into a major political force, pressing former Prime Minister David Cameron into offering the referendum. While UKIP has only one elected representative in the House of Commons, it saw its vote share in the 2015 general election soar to almost 13 percent and the party topped European Parliament elections a year earlier.

Yet the Brexit vote has left the party deeply divided. The battle the new leader faces was illustrated when a former aide to Farage, Alexandra Phillips, announced this week she was joining May’s Conservatives, calling UKIP a “catastrophic mess” riven by splits.

James said she will make unspecified changes to the party structures, potentially putting her on collision course with some powerful figures in its hierarchy. There was criticism of the amount of influence wielded by UKIP’s ruling National Executive Council during the campaign and James suggested its power should be curbed.

‘New Era’

“The European Union referendum and the outcome meant Britain is embarking on a new era and so is our party,” she said. “If we are going to reach and achieve the goals this party is capable of achieving, change is going to have to happen.”

James, UKIP deputy chairman and its spokeswoman on justice and home affairs, was the clear favorite with bookmakers to win the contest. The former front-runner, migration spokesman Steven Woolfe, was left off the list of candidates after missing the nominations deadline by 17 minutes. He blamed “technical problems” on UKIP’s website.

Farage, who resigned on July 4, addressed the conference earlier in the day and pledged to back the new leader. He said he plans to tour Europe to lend his support to anti-EU groups across the continent and will continue as leader of the UKIP group in the European Parliament.

“I’m still four square behind this party and its aims,” he said. “We won the war but we must work very hard to make sure we win the peace.”

Targeting Labour

UKIP can win more voters from the main opposition Labour Party in the north of England and continue to be a force for change in British politics, he said.

James entered politics after a 30-year career in the private health-care industry. She earned a reputation as an assured media performer during the general election and EU referendum campaigns. She came within 2,000 votes of becoming UKIP’s first elected member of the House of Commons when she narrowly lost a 2013 special election to the Liberal Democrats. 

UKIP’s sole member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell, defected from the Conservative Party in 2014. UKIP candidates finished second in 120 of the 650 House of Commons electoral districts in the general election. James decided against standing for personal reasons.

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