Britain’s anti-EU party UKIP elected former history lecturer Paul Nuttall as its new leader on Monday to take over from Brexit firebrand Nigel Farage, a political ally of US President-elect Donald Trump. Nuttall promised to unite the party — a driving force behind Britain’s vote to leave the EU — which has been under threat from bitter infighting and a plunge in funding following Farage’s departure announcement.
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In his farewell speech, Farage promised he would not be a “backseat driver” in the party but would see out his term as European Parliament lawmaker until 2020 and continue with his Brexit campaigning.
Farage said the European project was now “fatally weakened”, predicting setbacks in Austria, France, Italy and the Netherlands in the coming months.
“Be in no doubt that it is UKIP that is seen as the leading eurosceptic group across the entire continent,” Farage said at a conference in London where the result of the leadership ballot of party members was announced.
Tensions within UKIP burst into the open when newly-elected party leader Diane James stepped down in October just 18 days after winning a previous leadership ballot.
A fight then broke out between UKIP MEPs in the European Parliament in Strasbourg that put then leadership favourite Steven Woolfe in hospital.
Nuttall, 39, stressed the need for unity in the party and said his role would be to ensure that there will be no backsliding on Brexit by the government.
Since announcing his resignation following the EU referendum in June, Farage has ridden the wave of his campaign’s success to the United States where he appeared at a Trump rally in Mississippi.
Despite holding no public office, the beer-drinking “man of the people” — as he is often described — became the first British politician to meet Trump following the Republican’s shock election win.
Trump even recommended his anti-establishment ally as US ambassador, in a tweet that ruffled feathers in Downing Street, with British Prime Minister Theresa retorting that there was “no vacancy”.
Swapping his usual pint of ale for champagne at a party at London’s plush Ritz hotel this week, Farage revelled in the suggestion, holding up a tray of Ferrero Rocher chocolates in reference to the ambassador’s reception in an often parodied television advert.
In a speech to guests posted on YouTube he said 2016 had been “the year of the big political revolution”.
“When people look back in 100 years, 200 years, 2016 will stand out as one of those great historic years,” he added.
Farage’s exuberance cannot mask the turmoil engulfing his party, however.
Adding to the leadership fiasco, UKIP was accused this month of using EU funds to finance its Brexit campaign, in breach of party funding rules.