UKIP split does matter

FOR 12 years, the private grief of the Conservative Party has been played out in front of an amused electorate who have enjoyed watching the Tories tear themselves apartNow it's the turn of the UK Independence Party to put its finger on the self destruct button, as a leadership struggle between former Labour MP and talk-show host Robert Kilroy-Silk and Roger Knapman is played out in the media.

FOR 12 years, the private grief of the Conservative Party has been played out in front of an amused electorate who have enjoyed watching the Tories tear themselves apart

Now it's the turn of the UK Independence Party to put its finger on the self destruct button, as a leadership struggle between former Labour MP and talk-show host Robert Kilroy-Silk and Roger Knapman is played out in the media.

Mr Kilroy-Silk believes he is the only person with the charisma, style and personality to spearhead a successful assault on Westminster at the next General Election. Insisting he would make a better leader than Mr Knapman, he wrote to the branch chairmen calling for an "honest, open and grown-up" debate on the party's direction.

"Do we want a party with vision, with a clear sense of purpose, that knows where it wants to go and wants to win, or one that remains on the political fringe?"


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But the aggressive nature of Mr Kilroy-Silk has already upset the party's bank-roller in chief Paul Sykes and another major donor Alan Brown has warned UKIP the split at the top risks irrevocable damage.

The branch chairmen have now overwhelmingly endorsed Mr Knapman. And so fed up are they with the power plat that party's Euro MPs have written to Mr Kilroy-Silk saying it is vital for the party to present a united front at the next General Election.

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The signatories, who include East of England's MEPs Jeffrey Titford and Tom Wise, told Mr Kilroy-Silk that his talents could be a valuable part of the election effort "but instead you have repeatedly promoted your own leadership and must be aware of the damage done to the party by your public comments.

"In the last few days you have suggested that your leadership bid has widespread support.  In response, the issue has been discussed by our group of MEPs and the NEC.  It has also been considered by leading office-holders in the party. In addition in the last two days our call centre has phoned all branch chairmen asking them neutrally-worded questions to ascertain their views.

"All of this shows that there is no widespread support, let alone a consensus, for a leadership election and little support for you as a potential leader.  

"In our view this closes the matter.  There is no reason nor need for a leadership election as we have a legitimate leader who is only part-way through his term of office.  There are neither grounds nor justifications for departing from the normal constitutional process."

The MEPs warn the would-be leader that they will take "take firm action against further attempts to foment dissent which we would not tolerate."

Does an internal row in what many regard as little more than a fringe party really matter? It certainly does. A strong UKIP vote could influence the outcome in several Westminster seats throughout Britain, including the East of England.

It should never be forgotten that 296,160 people supported UKIP in June's elections European elections in this region – half a million more than backed Labour. How they vote in a General Election could determine the fate of many an MP.

IN a move which has upset members of the cosy Notting Hill gang who are the self-appointed saviours of the Conservative Party, Norfolk South-West Tories have chosen a little heard of former MP to succeed former Education Secretary Gillian Shephard.

Christopher Fraser, who lost Mid-Dorset and Poole North to the Liberal Democrats by just 384 votes in 2001, will be defending Mrs Shephard's 9,000-plus majority in a seat which includes Thetford and Swaffham.

The Notting Hill set promoted one of their number, Nick Hurd – son of former Foreign Secretary Lord (Douglas) Hurd – as their favourite from the 250 aspiring Tory candidates who applied for the vacancy.

After the elimination of Norfolk candidates Marion Rix and David Prior – former Norfolk North MP, William Hague's Chief Executive of the party and son of ex-Lowestoft MP and Cabinet minister Jim Prior – it looked as if the path had been cleared for Mr Hurd, who is Chief of Staff to Tory Shadow Cabinet member and Suffolk South MP Tim Yeo.

He reached the final four, but failed at a general meeting of the Norfolk South-West executive because he could not give an immediate assurance to members he would move his family to the county and make it is main home.

Mr Fraser easily won the nomination, defeating the deputy leader of Westminster city council Kit Malthouse and the former Walthamstow candidate Nick Boys Smith, .

The new candidate is a corporate adviser, management consultant and director of a small business bureau. He is 41 years-old, married with two children, and his grandmother lives in the constituency at Mundford near Thetford.

The Norfolk saga is a cautionary tale for the overwhelmingly male dominated Tory candidates' list. The days when MPs would graciously, if not gratuitously, pop down to their constituencies on a Friday night, mix with the locals for an hour or so and then head back to their London bases for a serious weekend at the Royal Opera House, are over.

MPs have not only to smooth the egos of the party faithful, who in safe seats have provided them with a meal ticket for life, but should be seen, out and about, in their constituencies at weekends.

And rightly so, especially now that details of their expenses have been put into the public domain.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"The national health service today is a service on its way to renewal, whereas when we took over, it was a service in a state of collapse."

– Tony Blair in the House of Commons during Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, replying to a charge by Tory leader Michael Howard.

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