Neil Hamilton, the disgraced former Conservative MP, could be on the verge of a parliamentary comeback at the age of 65 - for Ukip.
The Independent has learnt that the Thatcherite former minister, who lost his Tatton seat after allegations that he took “cash for questions”, has been shortlisted for one of Ukip’s best prospects at next May’s general election. He will go up against four other candidates in South Basildon and East Thurrock on Wednesday night.
Some local Ukip activists are furious, claiming that Mr Hamilton is being “parachuted” into the Essex seat by the party’s London headquarters. It ditched its original candidate, Kerry Smith, in October amid rumours that the plum constituency was being lined up for a “big fish”.
Critics of Mr Hamilton inside Ukip are worried that a figure associated with the sleaze allegations of the 1990s could become one of the party’s most prominent faces. They believe claim he is being rewarded for his work as the party’s deputy chairman after failing to win the nomination in Boston and Skegness, and making Ukip’s list for the European elections in May.
In pictures: The rise of Ukip
In pictures: The rise of Ukip
1/8 1993: Alan Sked forms Ukip
History professor Alan Sked had been active in anti-EU politics for a while beore he founded Ukip in 1993. He resigned from the party after the 1997 election, concerned that it was attracting far-right members, and has been critical of Ukip since. Picture: Reuters
2/8 2005: Kilroy defects
Former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk founded Veritas in 2005, after a failed bid to become leader, and took many of Ukip's elected members with him. But the party slowly lost its popularity and didn't put forward any candidates in the last election. Picture: REUTERS/Kieran Doherty REUTERS KD/RUS
3/8 2010: Farage becomes leader, again
Farage had led Ukip from 2006 until 2009, when he stood down to fight against the Speaker, John Bercow, for his Buckingham seat. He failed to win the election and returned to lead the party in November 2010. Picture: REUTERS/Kieran Doherty
4/8 2010: Ukip fights for election
Nigel Farage was injured in a plane crash on polling day in the 2010 general election, but his party increased its success in the votes. It fielded 572 candidates and took 3.1% of the vote, though failed to win any seats. REUTERS/Darren Staples
5/8 2013: Eastleigh gains
Ukip's candidate Diane James got the highest ever number of votes for any candidate from the party, but was beaten by the Liberal Democrats. The surge in support gave Ukip confidence ahead of local and European elections later in the year. Picture: Reuters
6/8 2013: Bloom kicked out
Godfrey Bloom, who served as an Ukip MEP from 2004 to 2014, had the whip withdrawn in 2013 after sexist comments and an attack on a journalist. He sat as an independent MEP until 2014, when he ended his term in office. Picture: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
7/8 2014: European election success
Ukip got a higher proportion of the vote than any other party in 2014's European elections, adding 11 new MEPs and taking its total to 24. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
8/8 2014: Carswell defects
Douglas Carswell defected from Ukip at the end of August, and was followed by Mark Reckless at the end of September, who resigned from the Tories amid rumours of many more defections to come. Picture: REUTERS/Toby Melville
“It’s not a great idea,” said one Ukip activist said. “South Essex is a crucial area for us. This could damage our prospects in some other target seats. Local party members are very unhappy about what the London HQ is doing.”
In 1997, Mr Hamilton lost his once-safe Tatton seat to Martin Bell, the former BBC war correspondent, who stood as an independent on an anti-sleaze platform. Three years earlier, he had resigned as a minister after allegations that he received cash in brown envelopes for asking Commons questions while a backbencher for Mohamed Al-Fayed, the owner of Harrods. Although he denied the claims, a parliamentary inquiry found that he took cash for questions.
In an unrelated matter, Ukip has announced that that it has suspended Roger Bird, its general secretary, while it investigates allegations of impropriety over candidate selection. It is understood that he was accused of helping a former girlfriend, although she was not selected for a Commons seat.
A Ukip spokesman declined to discuss the claims, but insisted that they did not relate to a recent row which reportedly saw more than a dozen Ukip activists quit the party over leader Nigel Farage's top-down handling of the candidate selection process.
Ukip said in a statement: "Shortly after a claim came to light about the conduct of Mr Bird with regard to candidate selection, the Ukip took action swiftly and decisively, including steps involving external human resources consultants, as well as following due process and the party's constitution to the letter. The party has acted swiftly and decisively and will not tolerate impropriety of any kind amongst its staff."Reuse content