- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 6, 2016

It’s been an abrupt fall — figuratively and literally — for the U.K. Independence Party, which this summer saw its dream of a British withdrawal from the European Union come to pass but Thursday saw its would-be next leader laid out cold on the floor after a fistfight with a rival over the party’s next act.

The famously fractious anti-immigration party has been plagued by discord, factionalism and a draining leadership battle since the stunning “Brexit” vote in June crowned UKIP’s 20-year fight to leave the EU. Longtime UKIP leader Nigel Farage stepped down as party leader shortly after the vote, and successor Diane James lasted just 18 days in the post before announcing this week she was quitting as well.

But the feuding reached a new level Thursday after Steven Woolfe, a member of the EU Parliament and the favorite to succeed Ms. James, was rushed to a French hospital after what Mr. Farage called an “altercation” with another UKIP member at a meeting of party leaders. Mr. Woolfe, 49, suffered seizures shortly after the bout and was photographed lying face down on the floor before being taken for medical treatment.

British press reports said that Mr. Woolfe’s sparring partner was Mike Hookem, a fellow UKIP member of the European Parliament, who was apparently challenged by Mr. Woolfe to take their political disagreements outside after a particularly heated exchange.

“It is believed that Steven banged his head against a structure — a window or a wall — but he got up,” one witness told the BBC, with the confrontation coming after a “rumbustious” disagreement about the direction of the party.

Mr. Farage told reporters later, “It was two grown men getting involved in an altercation. It’s not very seemly behavior. But I’m not, today, going to get involved in the blame game and name names and say who did what, but it shouldn’t have happened.”

UKIP appeared to be on top of the political world after the Brexit vote, defying the political establishment and sparking the referendum that cost anti-Brexit Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron his job.

Shut out

But despite being Britain’s third-largest party, UKIP under the country’s first-past-the-post parliamentary electoral system had only one seat in the 650-seat House of Commons, and party leaders were divided over whether to ally with the ruling Conservatives. Mr. Woolfe, who did not originally challenge Ms. James because his application to run came in a quarter-hour too late, reportedly was on the outs with others in the party after admitting recently he had considered defecting to the Conservatives because he was “enthused” by new Prime Minister Theresa May’s social agenda.

The Brexit vote also meant the party’s rallying cry and fundamental goal had been met, leaving no clear direction for the future.

Mr. Farage, the face of the party, exacerbated the uncertainty with his abrupt decision to step down, saying his “political ambition has been achieved.” A member of the European Parliament himself, Mr. Farage at the time described UKIP voters as the “turkeys that voted for Christmas.”

UKIP officials say the party has a clear mission in making sure the lengthy negotiations ahead over Britain’s divorce from the EU are conducted properly, and that the party’s signature issue of controlling immigration is protected. But Mr. Farage’s departure meant a vacuum at the top at a time when the party was divided over how closely to work with Ms. May and other factions in the Brexit coalition.

Mr. Farage was forced to come back on a temporary basis as party leader after Ms. James stepped down Tuesday, for reasons that remain unclear. She told reporters she felt she lacked “sufficient authority” to head the party — a sign of the divisions that have come to the fore since the Brexit vote.

“I keep trying to escape and before I’m fully free, they keep dragging me back,” Mr. Farage said.

Mr. Woolfe, a lawyer of mixed African-American, Jewish and Irish Catholic roots, had said it was his ambition to build UKIP into Britain’s main opposition party, targeting the badly divided Labor Party in its traditional working-class base.

Raheem Kassam, Mr. Farage’s former chief of staff, was seen as a main challenger to Mr. Woolfe. He criticized the “chicanery and duplicity” among party leaders and called for a “strong, united UKIP free of Tory splitters.”

Despite the scary images of Mr. Woolfe splayed out unconscious on the floor, he was reported later Thursday to be conscious and recovering after being given a CT scan at the hospital.

“I am feeling brighter, happier and smiling as ever,” he said in a statement. “The only consequence at the moment is a bit of numbness on the left-hand side of my face.”

Police in Strasbourg, where the European Parliament in based, said Thursday evening that the fight had not been reported to authorities. Mr. Farage said the party was launching its own investigation into the incident.

“It never looks good,” the UKIP leader said. “It makes us look like a Third World parliament. It’s not good.”

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