On the eve of their own conference, with Tory MPs finally beginning to prepare for battle on the European Union, their deadly foe at the polls, the UK Independence Party is reeling from the loss of their party chairman, Petrina Holdsworth (below).
In a letter to MEPs and National Executive Council Members, she reminds them that she has "received a number of highly offensive and inaccurate emails from the Deputy Leader of our party", MEP Mike Nattrass (below).
Having replied "in a reasonable and civil fashion" and demanded an apology from him, she goes on, Nattrass had refused "and indeed added to his insults". A further request had been answered with a critical "round-robin", which, writes Holdsworth, means that "he could not have made his position clearer."
In response, writes Holdsworth, "I shall make mine clear as well":
I will not stand by and take this, all of this oafish treatment from Nattrass coupled with no backup from the leadership who should have seen that his emails were totally unacceptable in any organisation let alone in the high profile area of politics. I therefore resign from the Chairmanship and the NEC forthwith.She was not, she added, "prepared to work with people at the top of the party who send foul mouthed and illiterate correspondence."
This development comes at a particularly sensitive time, shortly after Holdsworth had conveyed her members' concerns to UKIP MEPs that they were spending too much time in Brussels and Strasbourg. This was felt to be partially responsible for the UK profile of the party suffering, with membership plummeting from a pre-election high of 28,000 to just over 20,000 currently.
With party leader Roger Knapman – never known for his high profile – now in increasingly ill health – the Party is effectively leaderless, Petrina Holdsworth having held it together through a series of contentious changes to its constitution and management.
For some time, Nattrass has been believed to have been manoeuvring to bid for the Party leader's post, when it becomes vacant next year. Some believe he could well succeed , a move which many observers consider would be disastrous for the Party, especially as it has not been able to recruit any wealthy backers since Yorkshire millionaire Paul Sykes refused to support them at the general election.
A core of MEPs, led by Nigel Farage (left), is now understood to be under pressure to quit the Party and sit as independents, and it has been suggested that they offer to work with Tory MEPs, if the Conservative Party elects a Eurosceptic leader.
Coming while the Tory leadership campaign is in full flow, any such move could backfire badly. Tory leadership candidates – already reluctant to discuss the EU issue – could take the UKIP troubles as confirming that the European Union is no longer a major issue and that, at the next general election, UKIP will present little electoral threat.
On the other hand, this could be seen by the Tories as an opportunity to win back support from disaffected voters, by providing a robust policy on the EU.
Either way, this adds a further element of flux to a highly volatile Tory leadership contest, possibly making the outcome even more uncertain.