Douglas Carswell set off a bomb in Ukip this morning, declaring that the party needs a ‘fresh face’ and it should become an ‘optimistic, sunshine, smiley, socially liberal, unapologetically free market party’. These comments have been interpreted as a leadership challenge to Nigel Farage, who has in turn told Carswell to ‘put up or shut up’ — i.e. challenge him for the leadership or be quiet. Relations between Farage and Carswell have never been particularly healthy but this marks a new low in their relationship.
What prompted Carswell to make these remarks now — is this the beginnings of an effort to remove Farage or an airing of grievances? The timing is certainly suspicious, given that Farage is out of the country and all eyes are focused on Brussels for the EU Council meeting. Coffee House understands that the MP for Clacton was interviewed for a BBC Essex documentary, reflecting on his life as an MP and his hopes for Ukip. There was an agreement that the footage wouldn’t be shown or reported on when Parliament was sitting, hence why his comments have appeared today (Parliament is now in recess for Christmas). But I understand Carswell did not intend to start a leadership coup and like other parties, he felt it was important to express his views on how Ukip can move beyond the 13 per cent of the vote it won in May's general election.
Carswell has said several times that he does not want to be Ukip leader, but some in the party are beginning to wonder what will happen post-Farage. There are ongoing conversations about what will happen after the EU referendum in 2016/2017 — the party will have to find a new purpose regardless of the result and Farage will have to decide if he's going to stand to be an MP for the eighth time in 2020. If he doesn’t, the calls for him to be replaced by someone who does will grow louder.
But if this is the beginnings of a leadership coup, Ukip’s deputy chairman Suzanne Evans appears to be the most likely candidate to challenge him. She was the temporary leader for a few days in May when Farage resigned, but he then 'unresigned' and thwarted her chances. In return, she was snubbed when she applied to be the party's London Mayoral candidate. Like Carswell, Evans has been publicly critical of Farage and has called for the party to make a fresh start in the last few months.
Evans would likely be up against Paul Nuttall, the party’s deputy leader who is a Farage loyalist. The other possible candidate is Steven Woolfe, Ukip's migration spokesman. Woolfe does not appear to have allegiances to the pro or anti-Farage camps and would stand on his own platform. The only thing for certain is that Nigel Farage is one unhappy man — his grumpy interview on Sky News showed his patience with Carswell appears to be running out. But it's unclear how this saga is going to end.