Page last updated at 12:35 GMT, Friday, 4 September 2009 13:35 UK

UKIP leader's surprise decision to quit

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Nigel Farage: 'It is time for me to stand aside as leader of this party.'

By Ross Hawkins
Political correspondent, BBC News

As he puffed on his pipe outside his party's conference hotel on Thursday evening, Nigel Farage made a decision.

With a general election just months away, he would stand down as the leader of the UK Independence Party.

It was a move he had been considering for some time, but one that few of his party's supporters would have predicted.

Having announced earlier that day that he planned to take on House of Commons Speaker John Bercow at the general election, he had decided he wanted to devote all of his energy to that fight.

In his speech to the party conference in Southport, on Friday, he said it was "important for UKIP to get a voice at Westminster".

But he was also frank about his reasons for stepping down, saying he feared that with his duties as group leader in Brussels, planning a general election campaign as leader of the domestic party in the UK and campaigning to become an MP, "I may just have bitten off more than I can chew".

And he joked: "It is simply not possible for one human being - however hard working and talented - it is simply not humanly possible, in a party growing as fast as this one, to be leader of both."

'Wild men'

He added, with characteristic candour: "I think I am better to the party doing fewer jobs better rather than saying yes to everything and making a mess of it."

He hailed the progress the party had made in the past few years.

"When I took it over, and for a few years before that, UKIP had been riven with in-fighting. We had a brand that was seen by many to be somewhat toxic. I think that has gone.

"Even those elements of the media who may not like what we stand for no longer really think we are the wild men of the hills."

And with a record number of MEPs, growing success in local elections and plans to field 500 general election candidates, it had "never been in better health," Mr Farage told delegates, meaning "it is the right time to do this".

His brief speech, delivered without notes, was greeted with cheering and loud applause by party members.

But they now face the prospect of an unexpected leadership contest, which gets underway next week.

And whoever wins will have to learn to share the spotlight with Mr Farage, who will no doubt continue to be a high profile spokesman for the party.

Tough

News of his departure, just three years after being elected to the post and a year before his full term, will shock many UKIP members, not least because Nigel Farage has been rather successful during his time in charge.

In June, the party, which campaigns for Britain's exit from from the EU, had 13 of its candidates elected to the European Parliament, with the second highest share of the vote, beating Labour into third place.

It then pushed the Greens into fifth place at the Norwich North by election.

Chatty, informal and media savvy, Mr Farage was the voice and face of the party during those contests.

He is much more widely recognised than any of his potential successors.

In the past, UKIP has struggled to persuade those who supported it in European elections not to back other parties at general elections.

Nigel Farage thinks he can best serve the party's interests by concentrating on a single contest.

But his activists know whoever replaces him faces a tough few months as they prepare to fight for votes - and attention - in the coming general election campaign.



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