Ukip’s ruling body has permitted an anti-Muslim activist with close links to the far right to stand for its leadership, opening a potentially major division within the party over its future direction.
The party’s national executive has approved the candidacy of Anne Marie Waters among the 11 people who will be put to a vote of members next month.
Ukip said in a statement that the executive voted by a majority to allow all 11 to go forward.
A series of senior Ukip members have pledged to resign if Waters wins, a result that would probably finish the party, which received the third biggest share of the vote at the 2015 election, as a mainstream political force.
Even if Waters does not win, Ukip faces the possibility of splits over its post-Brexit future, with other leading candidates taking a strongly anti-Islam stance.
The favourite, Peter Whittle, a London assembly member, has caused disquiet among some moderate party members by promising to remake Ukip as a “cultural movement” opposed to multiculturalism.
Another leading candidate and London assembly member, David Kurten, has boasted on Twitter about receiving the endorsement of Paul Joseph Watson, a Briton who edits the website of Infowars, the rightwing US conspiracy theory group that claims the Sandy Hook school massacre and the 11 September 2001 attacks were carried out by the US government.
Waters has based her campaign on what she says is an urgent need to stem the influence in the UK of Islam, a religion she has described as “evil”.
She was deputy leader of the UK arm of Pegida, a far-right and anti-Islam group, and has called Islam “an expansionist, political, totalitarian and supremacist faith, commanded to world domination” and said people were wary of the religion because they feared their children would be abused by Muslims.
It later emerged she has received help in her leadership campaign from Jack Buckby, a former British National party member who later stood for parliament for another far-right group, Liberty GB.
Waters was prevented by Ukip from standing as a candidate at the election in June, leading to speculation she could be excluded from the leadership race, as the party’s rules say candidates must be members “of good standing”.
However, senior Ukip sources had said the belief was it might be better for Waters to stand and be defeated rather than be seen by some Ukip members as a martyr.
After Nigel Farage decided to not stand yet again for the post left vacant by Paul Nuttall, who stood down after Ukip’s disastrous performance in the general election, the field of candidates, while large, is devoid of well-known names.
Also among the possible favourites is John Rees-Evans, a former soldier best known outside the party for once claiming that a gay donkey attempted to rape his horse.
Other candidates include the MEPs David Coburn and Jane Collins, the latter of whom was ordered this year to pay more than £160,000 in damages to three Labour MPs after falsely claiming in a speech they knew about the abuse of girls in Rotherham but did nothing.
More fringe candidates include Ben Walker, Marion Mason and David Allen, former councillors or council candidates, and Henry Bolton, who stood for Ukip to be Kent’s police and crime commissioner.
The list is completed by Aiden Powlesland, a candidate at the June election who argued that the UK should thrive after Brexit by mining the asteroid belt and developing interstellar space travel.
One senior Ukip source said the expectation was that Whittle would win. “He seems the most likely, and my hope would be that if he does, he could be persuaded to focus less on Islam and more on Brexit. People think Brexit is over, but it’s all to play for over the next two years.”
Voting opens on 1 September, with the result announced at Ukip’s annual conference at the end of that month.
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