LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s anti-EU party fell into a post-election power struggle on Thursday after its campaign chief accused advisers of creating a “personality cult” around outspoken leader Nigel Farage, and a big donor called for Farage to resign.
The UK Independence Party, known as UKIP, surged into third place with 12.6 percent of the popular vote at last week’s general election. But under Britain’s first-past-the-post system in which candidates must win individual seats, it emerged with just a single seat in the 650-seat House of Commons, despite placing second in more than 100 districts countrywide.
Farage, whose telegenic personality as a beer-drinking man of the people helped turn a fringe movement into a major political force, lost his own bid for a seat and swiftly announced he would fulfil a pledge to resign as party leader.
But three days later he reversed the decision, saying he had been persuaded by party officials to stay on.
Campaign chief Patrick O‘Flynn accused advisers of building a “personality cult” around Farage and of steering the party to the hard right, which he said would damage it and the wider campaign to leave the European Union.
“There are poisonous influences which have to be removed,” O‘Flynn, a UKIP lawmaker in the European Parliament, told Sky News. “He has unfortunately fallen (under the influence of) a couple of people in his inner circle who are wrong ‘uns.”
Earlier, O‘Flynn told the Times newspaper that Farage had let himself be portrayed as a “snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive” man.
UKIP, which wants Britain to leave the EU and for immigration to be sharply curbed, has survived past scandals involving party figures caught making racist or sexist remarks. Farage has also seen off challenges to his leadership.
But the latest feud appears to be more serious, potentially determining the future of a party expected to lead the campaign for Britain to leave the EU in a referendum Prime Minister David Cameron has promised by the end of 2017.
O‘Flynn said the advisers had been trying to turn the party into “some hard-right ultra-aggressive American Tea Party type movement” rather than keep it anchored in “the common-sense centre of British politics”.
He insisted however that he still supported the UKIP leader and wasn’t planning a “coup” against him.
The two senior advisers at the centre of the row said later on Thursday they were leaving their posts.
Farage said he was staying on as leader. He said he did not recognise the negative description of him, and was disappointed in O‘Flynn’s comments. Nor, he said, would he be subjecting himself to a leadership contest.
“Whatever my faults are, and perhaps they are many, I‘m in politics because I believe in what I say,” Farage told BBC TV.
“The level of the support for me in the party is phenomenal and, frankly, to go through a leadership contest at a time when Mr Cameron says he’s renegotiating our relationship with the European Union would be a massive massive mistake.”
Farage’s behaviour appears to have alienated some donors.
Businessman Stuart Wheeler, a former supporter of Cameron’s Conservatives whose donations of more than 600,000 pounds ($1 million) to UKIP helped make it a formidable force, praised Farage but said he thought it was time for him to step down and make way for someone “quieter.”
However, Arron Banks, another major UKIP donor, defended Farage, telling the BBC Farage had “given his all” to build UKIP and that he “deserved a rest rather than petty squabbling from lesser people”.
In a tactic typical of British party feuds, unidentified party sources close to Farage were quoted in the media criticising O‘Flynn, making derogatory comments about his education and abilities.
The party’s only candidate to win a seat in the election, Douglas Carswell, has also been involved in a public dispute with party leadership over how much public money it should claim as a result of last week’s election.
Under the rules, the party is entitled to money to fund the work of its lawmakers based in part on how many votes it received. But Carswell, who defected last year from the Conservatives, has argued that as UKIP’s only member of parliament, he does not need the millions of pounds the party is entitled to, and taking it would be wrong.
Editing by Peter Graff and Jonathan Oatis