By William James
BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – The United Kingdom Independence Party has no plans to join an anti-European Union campaign masterminded by U.S. President Donald Trump’s former strategist Steve Bannon, UKIP’s leader told Reuters.
The party was one of the driving forces behind Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, under former leader Nigel Farage. Current leader Gerard Batten has pushed a more anti-Islam message since, and some have criticized his engagement with far-right figures.
“I’ve never met Steve Bannon. As far as I’m concerned he’s an interesting character obviously because of what he did in America,” Batten said on Friday in the central English city of Birmingham, where the party is holding its annual conference.
“I’m not quite sure what he is proposing across Europe but UKIP doesn’t fit into that. UKIP is a British party that is going to pursue aims for the British people.”
Batten added: “If he phoned me up and said he’d like to have a coffee and a chat I’d say ‘fine that’s great,’ but I have no agenda to do anything with Steve Bannon.”
Bannon, a former chairman of the right-wing Breitbart.com website and an architect of Trump’s 2016 election win, has launched a project to coordinate and bolster the anti-EU vote across the European Union.
So far, Bannon has focused his efforts in Britain on eurosceptic politicians in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party who could challenge her leadership. One, Jacob Rees-Mogg, distanced himself from Bannon this week.
A spokesman for Bannon’s project said that due to Brexit it had no plans to invite UKIP or any other British groups.
The UKIP leader has been condemned for his comments on Islam, which he once described as a “death cult”.
“Why is it far-right to criticize an ideology? I have an opinion on it which a lot of people share – that it’s a very unpleasant ideology,” he said of Islam.
“If the British public agree with me they’ll support UKIP. If they don’t, they won’t and then UKIP can find another leader.”
ELECTION RED ALERT
Since the 2016 Brexit vote UKIP has struggled, seeing its support evaporate in a 2017 election and undergoing a lengthy struggle to find the right leader to replace the talismanic Farage.
Batten, who attended UKIP’s first meeting more than 25 years ago, is only committed to lead the party until March 2019 and has yet to decide if he will serve beyond that. He is currently also a member of the European parliament.
He said his immediate task was to rebuild the party’s support base and influence in national politics.
Asked if he expected a national election in the near future, Batten said he had put the party on “red alert” but that it was difficult to predict what would happen to May’s government. He said UKIP would focus on marginal seats where it could help push pro-EU lawmakers out of parliament.
Earlier, he launched a 17-page manifesto setting out what he said were “populist” policies, seeking to rediscover the everyman appeal that once made the party a threat to both the Conservatives and opposition Labour Party.
“The people who count the numbers in the Tories (Conservatives) and Labour won’t be laughing at us, they’re too sensible for that,” he said. “They’ll be thinking ‘hang on a minute, UKIP hasn’t disappeared off the scene’.”
(Reporting by William James; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew Roche)