The battle to become Ukip’s next leader has exploded into life, with the presumed frontrunners Paul Nuttall and Suzanne Evans both finally declaring they will stand, with the latter immediately denounced by the party’s outgoing figurehead,Nigel Farage.
In a sign of the splits still affecting Ukip, which is seeking someone to follow on from Diane James’s brief tenure in the job, it took just minutes after Evans said she would stand for Farage to declare he could not vote for her.
Evans, a former Conservative councillor who helped draft Ukip’s 2015 election manifesto, appeared on BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show to declare herself “the right person to lead Ukip into the challenges ahead” and to champion the cause of continued Brexit.
“With me at the helm, I’m absolutely confident that we will be able to reach out to voters on both the left and the right of politics,” Evans said, saying that “perhaps at times there’s been a bit too much testosterone in Ukip”.
Evans was asked about Raheem Kassam, a former aide to Farage who now edits the UK arm of the Donald-Trump-backing rightwing US news website Breitbart. Kassam on Saturday won the support of Ukip’s biggest donor, the insurance tycoon Arron Banks.
She described Kassam as on the “far right wing”, and said Ukip did not need a “fresh injection of toxicity”, bringing a rebuke from Farage, who was appearing on ITV’s Peston on Sunday show immediately afterwards.
“For her to talk about the party being toxic, for her to already declare one of the candidates who is running, Raheem Kassam, as being far-right, I don’t view this as being a very good start,” said Farage, who returned as the party’s interim leader when James stepped down after 18 days in the job.
“I have to say they are the sort of things she said to me – after the general election, she said to me I shouldn’t take any part at all in the referendum campaign, I was toxic, immigration shouldn’t be discussed with the British public. I think she has been in the wrong place ever since that,” he said.
Farage added: “I won’t be voting for her, not after that, no.”
Nuttall, Ukip’s deputy leader and one of its MEPs, used yet another show, BBC1’s Sunday Politics, to finally declare he would stand as leader, describing himself as the only candidate able to bring the party together.
“I have huge support out there across the country, not only among people at the top of the party, in Westminster and with the MEPs, but also among the grassroots,” Nuttall said. “I want to stand on a platform of being the unity candidate. Ukip needs to come together.”
In the wake of James’s decision to quit and an alleged scuffle with a fellow Ukip MEP, after which the former leadership frontrunner Steven Woolfe spend three days in hospital and then left the party, the party was “facing an existential crisis”, Nuttall warned.
He said: “Ukip at the moment is looking over the edge of a political cliff. It will either step off or it will step back. And I want to be the candidate that will tell us to come backwards.”
Nuttall added: “I believe that I am the man to bring the factions together, to create unity within the party, and to build and restructure, and get us ready for the coming challenges.”
The leadership campaign, which will see voting among party members open next month, is nonetheless likely to be a bruising one, given the already open warfare between Evans and Farage, and Banks’s decision to back Kassam over Nuttall.
Kassam, who has himself got something of a track record of falling out with fellow party members, called Evans’s description of him “sad”. He said: “This is a project fear tactic and Ukippers are sick of these smears.”