Page last updated at 18:17 GMT, Friday, 27 November 2009

UKIP leader Pearson has hard act to follow

By Chris Mason
Political reporter, BBC News

Brash, outspoken and willing to shout the loudest.

Lord Pearson
Lord Pearson: The insider's outsider?

The UK Independence Party are regarded by most as the standard bearers of Euroscepticism in Brussels.

Their former leader, Nigel Farage, has become the Eurosceptic's Eurosceptic - and personified his party during his leadership.

Vivacious, pugnacious and not afraid of being contentious, Mr Farage commands a grudging respect even from some of the European Parliament's most federalist minded members, as I discovered during my time as a BBC reporter in Brussels and Strasbourg.

They may hate Nigel Farage's hatred of the European Union, but they recognise he is a powerful and passionate advocate for his cause.

It is that profile that has led UKIP - a party with form when it comes to internal turbulence - to elect a new leader.

Some 2.5 million people voted for UKIP at the European elections in June, they secured 16% of the vote, 13 MEPs and beat Labour into third place.

So UKIP are in high spirits. But they have outgrown the backroom infrastructure needed for a party of their size and Mr Farage found it increasingly difficult to lead his MEPs, run his party - and organise his campaign to secure a seat in the Commons.

When he decided to take on the Speaker of the Commons John Bercow in his Buckingham seat at the general election, something had to give.

Chutzpah

Party officials said it would be impossible for him to be fielding calls from their candidate in Newcastle North, for example, enquiring about election leaflets, whilst attempting to knock on doors in Tingewick in Buckinghamshire.

We don't need these monkeys in Westminster
Lord Pearson, UKIP leader

And so Nigel Farage stood down, called a leadership election, and then, with typical chutzpah, told the BBC there was only one "serious, credible" candidate to replace him, and if the party selected any of the others, it would be "tricky."

That candidate was Lord Pearson of Rannoch, the millionaire former Conservative peer. And yes, Lord Pearson has won, securing around half of the votes cast amongst UKIP's members.

It's now down to him to organise the party behind the scenes and mastermind a general election campaign - a very different political beast to the European contests UKIP have proved quite adept at.

With the first past the post electoral system for the Commons - as opposed to proportional representation for Brussels - the task of electing MPs is a much harder one for UKIP.

Lord Pearson appears to be portraying himself as the insider's outsider. A rich man, ennobled by Lady Thatcher, but now turning his back on what he sees as the Westminster establishment.

"We don't need these monkeys in Westminster," he said bluntly on getting the UKIP leadership. "And we've had enough of Brussels too. We're going to change it."

Throwing stones

He will hope, following the expenses scandal, that UKIP can continue to benefit from the pervasive sense of cynicism that still lingers in many people's minds when they think about the existing parties at Westminster.

But it's a big ask. Poll after poll suggests Europe isn't a top political priority to most voters, however much many may sympathise with UKIP's outlook.

And some within his party are already throwing stones.

Nikki Sinclaire, a UKIP MEP for the West Midlands, stood against Lord Pearson for the leadership. She feels Nigel Farage has abandoned the party just months before a general election.

And Councillor Alan Wood, another challenger for the top job, has bluntly said he "doesn't respect Lord Pearson" because of his desire to focus campaigning on immigration.

Internal harmony has never been UKIP's strong point. Shouting loudly has.

And on that score, don't bet against it continuing.

On his website, Lord Pearson says he is taking over from "the most eloquent politician in the land."

Lord Pearson might be UKIP's new leader, but I suspect we've not heard the last from Nigel Farage.



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