Ukip has narrowly avoided a shift towards the far right after its members elected the relatively unknown former soldier Henry Bolton as its new leader, just beating a populist anti-Islam candidate.
In a result announced at the party’s annual conference in Torquay on Friday, Bolton, whose main political experience was to stand as Kent’s crime commissioner, won 3,874 votes, just under 30% of the relatively low total.
Anne Marie Waters, who has called Islam “evil” and has links to the far right, finished second in the seven-candidate race with 2,755 votes. Numerous senior Ukip figures and most of its MEPs had threatened to walk away if she won.
Instead, Ukip’s fourth leader inside a year is a low-key technocrat who has worked for the UN, stood as a Liberal Democrat MP and ran on the pledge to professionalise and unite a party riven by splits and seeking a new purpose following the Brexit referendum.
Bolton, 54, was relatively unknown even among the Ukip faithful before the election to succeed Paul Nuttall, but gained momentum with a sober and restrained approach that distinguished him in a race often characterised by extremism and eccentricity.
His election was immediately welcomed by Nigel Farage, Ukip’s former leader, who had reportedly planned to start a new party if Waters won. Farage tweeted that Bolton was “a man of real substance” while Arron Banks, the insurance millionaire who was Ukip’s biggest donor, said he was ready to engage with the party again.
Bolton said he would “have a conversation” with Farage on a future Ukip role, and wanted to talk to all the other candidates, including Waters, before making decisions about them. He promised to keep Ukip at the forefront of the Brexit debate, but said it needed to expand its focus. “Brexit is our core task,” he said. “However, it is not the end of the line for us.”
Bolton, a former soldier and Thames Valley police officer, later worked for organisations such as the UN and Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Kosovo and other countries.
Asked at a press conference after the result was announced whether this made him an “establishment mole”, Bolton said his background made him ready for the job.
“If you look at the things I’ve done, you’ll see a certain degree of endurance there, both physical, emotional and political,” he said. He said that, while he was different to Farage, he had the qualities for the job: “I’m not Nigel. None of us is Nigel. None of you are Nigel. Nigel is Nigel. I’m not going to try and fill his boots, I have my own style, my own personality.”
Bolton distanced himself from the anti-Islam direction advocated by Waters and to a lesser extent by the early favourite, Peter Whittle, who finished a surprise fifth in the contest. “I absolutely abhor the rhetoric that says we are at war with Islam, or anything that indicates such,” he said.
However, he said: “Islam is of concern, the nature of Islam and the practices of the religion are such that they tend to have a more dominating effect in a community where there’s a larger Muslim population than the Christian population.”
He promised to review Ukip’s “integration agenda”, which was devised by Whittle for the 2017 election and which called for a ban on full-face veils in public, among other policies.
Bolton faces a considerable task in heading a party whose share of the vote fell to 1.8% at the last general election from 12.6% in 2015. There were a total of 12,915 votes cast in the leadership election, compared with the more than 300,000 secured by Jeremy Corbyn when he was re-elected as Labour leader last year.
Not all senior Ukip figures are thrilled by the rise of Bolton, or convinced he has the charisma and personality to turn the party around, with one predicting that, while Waters would destroy the party quickly, Bolton would bring “a slow death”.
The party has been riven by splits and disagreements, one of which resulted in MEP Steven Woolfe being taken to hospital after a fight with another Ukip MEP.
At the conference a year ago, members elected Diane James to succeed Farage, who stepped down after the Brexit referendum. She resigned after just 18 days in the post, saying she could not work with the party hierarchy.
Another election followed, in which Paul Nuttall was selected as leader. However, he faced a tumultuous six months in charge, in which Ukip’s support at the general election plunged from almost 4m votes in 2015 to fewer than 600,000 in June.
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