Page last updated at 15:34 GMT, Friday, 20 November 2009

UKIP chooses its next leader

Gerard Batten, Mike Nattrass, Lord Pearson, Nikki Sinclaire, Alan Wood
UKIP leadership contenders: Gerard Batten, Mike Nattrass, Lord Pearson, Nikki Sinclaire, Alan Wood

Sketch
Gary O'Donoghue
Political correspondent, BBC News, UKIP leadership hustings

It is a chilly winter's evening and the UKIP faithful are crammed into a conference room in a Peterborough station hotel, improved by a recent lick of paint.

Most are in their late middle age, but there is a smattering of younger types, dressed twenty years too old for their age; there's even a child hanging around in the corridor outside - surely not there through choice.

The rest are hard core political activists whose every moment seems dominated by the threat of a European super state.

Protest, as they do, that UKIP has policies in all sorts of areas - and that is indeed true - but every conversation, seems eventually to land up in Brussels and its evils.

Tonight they are here to choose a new leader after their hero, Nigel Farage, announced he was standing down in order to take on Commons speaker John Bercow in his Buckingham constituency at the next general election.

Frankly none of the candidates are household names - three MEPs, one councillor and a member of the House of Lords.

And with a maximum of six months to go before an election, getting the winner acquainted with the voting public will be no easy task.

But despite their difficulties, the UKIP faithful are on a high.

Greater spoils

Thirteen MEPs elected at the European elections in June and a share of the popular vote that pushed Labour into third place.

Combine with that, their best ever by-election result in July's Norwich North contest - more than twelve percent of the vote - and they feel they have started to make some kind of breakthrough.

On tonight's evidence, whoever wins this contest will have a highly committed bunch of believers to capitalise on their current advantages

The evidence is indeed encouraging.

At the 2005 General election the three main parties shared 92% of votes, leaving just 8% among the rest. But in recent months, particularly since the expenses scandal broke, the smaller parties have consistently attracted a larger slice of opinion.

So it is not unreasonable for UKIP, the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Greens and the BNP to think that there are greater spoils to play for this time around.

UKIP have had their own share of difficulties over expenses, having to expel two MEPs when it emerged they were being investigated for false accounting in one case, and benefit fraud in another. Both men ended up in jail.

But the party believes it dealt swiftly with these errant types, in contrast they say to the main parties.

Their biggest boost though has been delivered to them on a plate by David Cameron.

Donation trouble

The Tory leader's decision not to offer a referendum on the Lisbon treaty has put a definite spring in the step of UKIP members.

They scent Tory grassroots disillusionment over the change in policy and UKIP sees itself as a natural home for Tories who feel they have nowhere else to go.

But it will not just be Europe on which they will attempt to sweep up the protest vote.

Immigration will be central to their campaigning strategy, a tactic they feel will capture unhappy Labour supporters as well.

"We are fishing in the same pond as the BNP," said one senior party member, "albeit with a slightly different worm".

Once the new leader is in place on 27 November, the fishing can begin; though one big headache remains.

The party is currently battling in the courts over a £350,000 donation from a former bookmaker, Alan Bown, who was not on the electoral register at the time he gave the money.

Unstage-managed

The party argues that Mr Bown had been on the register, and that it was a simple administrative error which meant his name had been removed.

But the Electoral Commission is pressing its case and, if legal costs are lumped on top, it could scupper the party's chances of fighting any kind of election.

UKIP sources believe it is unlikely to be decided in the courts that soon however, though there is definite nervousness over the situation.

Back in Peterborough there's a refreshingly unstage-managed feel to the hustings.

Argy bargy is allowed, even with our television cameras present, and the candidates are practically sitting in the laps of the faithful, the room is so small.

On tonight's evidence, whoever wins this contest will have a highly committed bunch of believers to capitalise on their current advantages.



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