Ukip has announced that the MEP Roger Helmer, who just last week was at the centre of a homophobia row, will contest the Newark parliamentary by-election in a bid to become the party’s first ever MP.
It comes after party leader Nigel Farage said last week he would not stand for the Newark seat, vacated after Tory minister Patrick Mercer stood down over a cash-for-questions scandal.
Mr Farage said at the time that a victory in the by-election would “completely transform the landscape” for Ukip, but eventually refused the responsibility for trying to fulfil that goal himself.
Instead, the job falls to Mr Helmer, who defected from the Conservative Party in 2012 and has represented the East Midlands in the European Parliament for 15 years.
He was criticised last week after The Sun reported how he had once noted that some people find homosexuality “distasteful if not viscerally repugnant”. When challenged on his views, he told The Sun that it was morally acceptable to prefer heterosexuality over homosexuality, or vice versa.
“Different people may have different tastes,” he said. “You may tell me that you don’t like Earl Grey tea. That may be a minority view but you are entitled not to like it if you don’t like it.”
In a statement posted today on the Ukip website, Mr Helmer said: “I am both proud and humbled to have been selected by the constituency association in Newark to represent the Ukip cause in this historic town in what could well prove to be an historic by-election.
“It would be a huge honour to be elected to serve as Newark’s MP and I will be giving my all over the next few weeks to achieve that outcome.”
Mr Farage also issued a statement saying he had felt from “pretty early on” that Mr Helmer would be selected as the candidate – despite only ruling himself out of the running five days ago.
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Speaking about Mr Helmer, the party leader said: “He is a massively experienced and respected figure on the national political stage and on the local political stage as well. I know that the Ukip membership will rally to the cause of making Roger our first directly elected MP.”
On the topic of the homophobia row, Mr Helmer said that it was “morally acceptable to prefer heterosexuality over homosexuality, or vice versa”.
He told The Independent: “I said that people may prefer heterosexuality or homosexuality. I did not say that people could dislike – much less hate – other people on the grounds of their sexual orientation”
“The mainstream media are engaged in a feeding frenzy against Ukip, and are prepared to twist the facts to suit their agenda,” he added.
In 2011, Mr Helmer caused a storm by saying that homosexuality was akin to a mental health problem.
At the time he tweeted: “Why is it OK for a surgeon to perform a sex change operation, but not OK for a psychiatrist to try to ‘turn’ a consenting homosexual?”
The Newark by-election is scheduled to take place on 5 June, with the Conservatives selecting Robert Jenrick to run and Labour represented by Michael Payne. The Lib Dems are expected to choose a candidate in the coming days.