Three years ago, the United Kingdom Independence Party was a political force to be recognised. With 12 seats in the European Parliament and a 16 per cent share of the vote, the party was Britain's third-biggest in Europe.
At one point, inside Conservative Central Office there were fears that this one-time rag-tag gang of breakaway anti-Europeans would split the Tory vote in the UK and break the mould of British politics at Westminster. This, despite a memorable claim in 2004 by the MEP Geoffrey Bloom that a woman's place was behind the fridge, scrubbing.
But as hundreds of delegates gather for their annual conference in a rain-swept Bournemouth this weekend the party finds itself riven with furious – and quite extraordinary – infighting. Its leader, Nigel Farage, is facing an attempted coup to unseat him by several factions of the party, including one with links to the far-right British National Party (BNP) and another still loyal to his predecessor.
The party's press officer, Annabelle Fuller, a close ally of Mr Farage, has resigned after receiving phone threats. She told The Independent the calls came from "sexist" party members in the middle of the night. In her letter of resignation, Ms Fuller, 26, complained of "personal threats" and "verbal abuse". She said she had been subjected to abusive telephone calls, including one at 3am calling her a whore.
Back at Ukip's headquarters, at least four senior party figures – including one who gave money to the US associate of the BNP – are said to be seeking Mr Farage's removal. At the same time, another plot to remove Mr Farage is being co-ordinated by the former Ukip member Andrew Edwards who was removed from the party after it emerged he had links to the BNP.
In January, he sent an email to friends saying, "Happy new year and damnation to the enemies of Britain and the British".
He confirmed yesterday that he wants Mr Farage removed, and named several other figures who believe Mr Farage is not taking a hard enough line on issues including immigration and who are moving against his leadership. Then there is David Abbott, a member of Ukip's national executive committee (NEC), and former candidate in the European elections. He once donated money to the American Friends of the BNP (AFBNP).
Dr Abbott, whom Mr Farage has tried to remove from the NEC, said he was working for Mr Farage's removal from the leadership, saying "UKIP needs effective leadership".
Nick Griffin, the BNP leader, confirmed both Dr Abbott's donation – which he said was a one-off and on "free speech" grounds – and Mr Edwards' ever-closer involvement with the BNP. He said Mr Edwards regularly wrote for the BNP website, confirmed he was involved with the BNP while in Ukip and said that he "was with them and is now much more sympathetic to us".
He said Mr Edwards was "one of a number of people who joined Ukip in good faith and then found that it wasn't – and Nigel Farage in particular wasn't – what they had thought".
Asked yesterday about his links to the BNP, Mr Edwards said the answer depended on one's definition of "links". He denied ever having been a member, but added: "Have I had email contact with members of the BNP? Yes, I include some of them in circulars I put out in relation to all things EU, and yes, I make use of the BNP website for information re UK politics."
Pressed on whether he wrote for the website, he said he submitted articles on EU matters that were posted on the site.
In recent days, as the conference has approached, another party member, John Smith, has sent an email to fellow members in an attempt to rally a move against Mr Farage. The email, sent from an address that contains the term "Islamophobuk", says: "I will not renew my membership when renewal falls due, and I will resign from the party. Unless? Unless Nigel Farage is removed from his destructive stranglehold on Ukip. A stranglehold that has seen the party's fortunes plummet so dramatically."
Yesterday afternoon in Bournemouth, the leader was said to have faced a "heated" question-and-answer session as the two-day conference got under way. And last night, a series of plotters were at a hotel in Bournemouth to discuss how to overthrow their leader.
A private memo, seen by The Independent, sets out the meeting's agenda: "Subjects for discussion can include ... the campaign strategy ... the restructuring of the party, method and control for elections to the NEC, role of the leader and leadership ... financial controls and internal party communications." Outside, the air in Bournemouth was thick with rumours and plotting.
So, where did it all go wrong?
Even Mr Farage's enemies accept he is a charismatic and successful communicator who dominates programmes such as the BBC's Question Time when he appears, allowing the party to punch above its weight. But Mr Farage's critics question both his "centralised", "top-down" style, and the way he runs his party's finances.
They say that although Mr Farage claims to have been at the vanguard of transparency on expenses in Brussels, he has failed to adopt the most recent reforms being made by British parties there.
Ms Fuller said the present problems began when Mr Farage – an unlikely "moderniser" - took over the leadership from Roger Knapman, who remains an MEP but who has poor relations with his successor. He has held discussions with Tories about the possibility of running an alternative slate of Eurosceptic candidates in the European Parliament elections next June.
Allies of Mr Knapman confirmed yesterday that he "regularly" meets prominent former Conservatives to discuss the future of the withdrawalist cause. These include Tim Congdon who has written to Mr Farage questioning his strategy.
Piers Merchant, the former Tory MP who is advising Mr Knapman, said the MEP "very regularly meets a cross-section of former and present Tory MPs and senior figures, including Mr Congdon, who publicly and privately hold similar views."
One friend of Mr Knapman said last night that there was a "severe problem" with the leadership and that Mr Farage was in a "difficult" position. He predicted that the leadership would come under pressure in the coming weeks.
Whatever the truth behind the infighting at the heart of the far-right and anti-European strand of politics, the stakes are high. If Ukip implodes, the BNP looks like the chief beneficiary, and Nick Griffin could be a step closer to achieving his biggest goal yet: to claim a monopoly on anti-European as well as anti-immigration feeling and one day emerge as Britain's fourth largest party.Reuse content