LONDON – When Britain voted to leave the European Union, it was a triumph for the U.K. Independence Party.
Since then, the right-wing party has lurched toward disaster, losing its leader and descending into feuding.
On Friday UKIP chose a new leader, Diane James, who promised to turn the fractious party into a professional political force capable of ensuring Britain’s EU exit is not watered down into “Brexit lite.”
UKIP, with a single representative among the 650 members of the House of Commons, has little influence on what Prime Minister Theresa May’s government negotiates as a leaving deal with the EU. And as a one-issue party, its direction now is hard to predict.
“We are going to confound our critics, we are going to outwit our opponents, we are going to build on our election success that we have achieved to date and do more,” James told delegates at UKIP’s fall conference in Bournemouth on England’s south coast.
James, a 56-year-old Member of the European Parliament, beat four other candidates, taking almost half the votes cast by party members.
She faces a tough task replacing Nigel Farage, the charismatic, ruddy-faced populist who helped propel UKIP from the political fringe to influential power broker.
Over the past few years the party has won over large numbers of Conservative and Labour voters by appealing to concerns about globalization and large-scale immigration.
Pressure from UKIP helped push then-Prime Minister David Cameron into holding a referendum on Britain’s EU membership, which resulted in a victory for the “leave” campaign.
But Farage also failed repeatedly to win election to Parliament, and has clashed with senior UKIP members, including its sole national lawmaker, Douglas Carswell, a defector from the Conservative Party.
Farage announced his resignation after Britain’s June 23 referendum on EU membership – the second time he’s quit as party leader.
This time, he says, he means it.
“I’ve done my bit,” Farage said Friday.
James paid tribute to the “stalwart” Farage but said “I am not Nigel-like. I am not even Nigel lite.”
She promised to unify UKIP and turn a sometimes shambolic operation into “a winning political machine.”
Former UKIP media chief Alexandra Phillips announced Friday that she had joined the Conservatives because of May’s commitment to getting a good Brexit deal for Britain. Other disillusioned UKIP members may follow.
Phillips said she feared the divisions within UKIP were irreparable.
“There are so many factions in UKIP it becomes a Venn diagram, almost, where my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” she told the BBC.