Nigel Farage, the leading Brexit campaigner, is quitting his Eurosceptic political party in protest at its Islam ‘fixation’ and the recruitment of a far-right extremist as a senior adviser.
Mr Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), announced he was quitting the party after failing to persuade its executive to replace new leader Gerard Batten, who has promoted an anti-Muslim rabble-rouser to his top team.
Mr Batten appointed Tommy Robinson, the former leader of the far-right English Defence League, as an adviser despite party rules barring former (EDL) members from joining the party to avoid its outspoken British nationalism being labelled racist.
Under Mr Farage’s near decade-long leadership, UKIP became a powerful if short-lived political force that succeeded in its main objective of winning the 2016 national referendum to leave the European Union. He quit as leader shortly afterwards.
The party has since slumped in the polls and the recruitment of Mr Robinson, a populist nationalist notorious for anti-Muslim sentiments, has been seen as an attempt by UKIP to tap into his fanbase of disillusioned white working-class young men.
"Gerard Batten realises he has to appeal to a broader base," said Professor Matthew Feldman, the director of the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right. "It's opportunistic but whether that gamble pays off is largely tied to Brexit,"
Mr Batten responded to Mr Farage’s announcement by claiming that he left “UKIP in spirit” after the referendum.
The party is now organising a “Brexit Betrayal” rally on Sunday in London, where Mr Robinson is one of the key speakers, seeking to transfer his anti-Muslim street protests into a mainstream political campaign.
The party released a photograph of its planning committee which showed a man convicted of an attempted kidnapping with a seat at the top table. Daniel Thomas was jailed for two years after he went armed with a knife to a man’s house in an apparent dispute over drugs.
UKIP said it was unaware of the man’s past and said he was only there to act as Mr Robinson’s security.
“We are just a few days away from the most ill-judged political event I have ever been aware of in British politics,” wrote Mr Farage in a newspaper article announcing his decision to quit.
“The very idea of Tommy Robinson being at the centre of the Brexit debate is too awful to contemplate.”
The march will be two days before Mrs May seeks parliamentary approval for her Brexit deal. Both Mr Batten and Mr Robinson will speak at the event.
Critics of Mr Farage accused him of hypocrisy, citing his unveiling of an anti-migrant poster that showed a queue of mostly non-white people with the slogan: “Breaking point: the EU has failed us all”.
The head of the Church of England also condemned Mr Farage after he claimed that sexual assaults by migrants were the “nuclear bomb” of the EU referendum campaign.
“The gall of the man takes some beating,” said a spokesman for and extremism campaigning group Hope Not Hate. “This is the beast that he helped to create.”
In his article, Mr Farage said that he was confronted by “several angry young men… who all seemed to be obsessed with Islam and Tommy Robinson” while speaking at that party’s annual conference earlier this year.
“I wondered at the time if I’d just given my last UKIP speech,” he said. “There is a huge space for a Brexit party in British politics, but it won’t be filled by UKIP.”
The success of UKIP in tapping into disaffection with the EU, saw it win the third highest number of votes in national elections in 2015.
The party had only two MPs but Mr Farage’s international recognition was far beyond his party’s level of representation.
He was the first British politician to meet with Donald Trump following his presidential election victory and the American leader proposed him as an ambassador to the US.
Mr Robinson – who has criminal convictions for offences including violence and fraud - has been shunned by conventional parties because of his anti-Muslim rhetoric. But he has a large online following and has received financial backing from far-right donors in the United States.
Both Mr Farage and the executive had opposed his appointment, but Mr Batten faced them down saying that the most recognisable face of the far-right had been “persecuted by the state” because of his anti-Muslim views.