Ukip conference: Farage and Carswell in battle over rival anti-EU campaigns

Ukip Bus

Ukip is embroiled in a new civil war over the EU referendum at its annual conference, with Nigel Farage accusing his only MP Douglas Carswell of still having residual loyalties to the Conservatives.

Farage made the comments amid discontent among some senior Ukip figures about his decision to officially endorse the grassroots Leave.EU campaign, which is being bankrolled by millionaire donor Arron Banks.

This puts him on a different page from Carswell, who defected from the Conservatives to Ukip a year ago and is involved with the rival cross-party For Britain group of businesses, donors and MPs.

Tensions about which group will become the main official “out” campaign broke into the open when Carswell and Banks had a public confrontation in a corridor during the event at Doncaster racecourse, with Banks accusing Carswell of being “borderline autistic with some mental illness attached”.

Banks later apologised for the comments about Carswell’s mental health. He said: “Douglas Carswell was appallingly rude and provocative towards me today which does not justify my comments for which I apologise.”

The argument was triggered by comments made to the Guardian by Banks, who said Carswell would eventually have to get behind the Leave.EU campaign or face losing the party whip. Carswell approached Banks and accused the Ukip donor of trying to get him removed as an MP and briefing newspapers against him.

In a set-to witnessed by journalists, Banks replied by saying he would already have sacked Carswell if he worked for one of his companies.

Following the dispute, Carswell told the Guardian: “It’s really important that we build a united campaign and a good place to start with that is to unite Ukip. And a good place to start with that is not to suggest that Ukip MPs who don’t fall into line get ousted from Ukip. I think this a serious, important politics and it is too important to be reduced to a squabble at Doncaster.”

Asked about the confrontation, Farage said Carswell seemed to have “residual loyalty to his old friends in the Conservative party and that’s fine”. He said Banks had no official position in Ukip so the idea that he could deselect Carswell did not make sense.

Farage then went on to accuse For Britain, which is run by campaigners Matthew Elliott and Dominic Cummings, of being a “talking shop in Tufton Street” and failing to be sufficiently clear that they definitely want to campaign to leave the EU.

“But the fact is Mr Elliott’s group do not advocate leaving the European Union,” he said. “They might do one day, It’s a bit like John Redwood, who has been a Eurosceptic for 25 years who says we must wait to see what Dave comes back with. Our view is that is absolutely hopeless and allows the prime minister to set his agenda. It Is wholly unacceptable.”

In fact, For Britain is preparing for an out campaign after being unconvinced about David Cameron’s aims for renegotiation. Publicly, it wishes Ukip and Leave.EU all the best but behind the scenes, senior Tories want to keep Farage away from their EU-out campaign over fears he could put off swing-voters who might be tempted to vote for a Brexit.

Asked whether he would step back if there is a consensus he is too divisive to be an out-campaign figurehead, Farage said: “There ain’t nobody else, so I’m going to have a go.”

In his conference speech, Farage said Leave.EU is the only campaign that is absolutely clear in its aims of leaving the EU. He said winning the EU referendum was dearer to his heart than all other political goals, telling activists that now is the moment to “put country before party”.

But in pointed comments, he hit out at the “soft Eurosceptics” who want to sideline him from the campaign to leave the EU and listen to Cameron’s arguments for staying.

He insisted the Banks campaign had managed to unite all the Eurosceptics who were clear they wanted the UK to leave Europe. Earlier on Friday, Farage said public concern about immigration had increased chances of a Brexit. “I used to think we had 33% chance of winning but now I think it is 50%,” he said.

Video highlights of Ukip conference.

Banks has dozens of people working in a call centre, which has signed up more than 120,000 supporters. He has also hired Goddard Gunster after former Tory strategist Lynton Crosby reportedly turned down a £2m offer to join the campaign.

However, For Britain has the support of almost every Eurosceptic MP and a number of prominent political donors. Attendance at Ukip’s conference is down on last year, after the party failed to break through at the general election with 4m votes but just one MP.

It was partly overshadowed by a row following comments by the newspaper commentator Katie Hopkins, who suggested the photograph of drowned three-year-old Syrian Alan Kurdi was staged and that the House of Lords should be gassed. Asked about the comments, Farage said he did not know whether the photo was staged but he doubted it was.

There was also a controversy over comments by Tim Aker, a Ukip MEP, who said the smoking ban caused more damage to northern communities than the closure of the pits.

Labour MP Kevin Barron said: “These outrageous comments show just how out of touch Ukip are with working people. Nigel Farage and his party have absolutely nothing to offer working families and communities across the country.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowena Mason Political correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 25th September 2015 19.01 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010