Ukip has been plunged into chaos after its leader, Henry Bolton, overwhelmingly lost a vote of confidence from the party’s national executive committee, but then indicated that he would not step down from the role voluntarily.
If he stays, the party will have to hold an emergency meeting of members in the next month to try to force him out.
Bolton, Ukip’s leader since September, has been under huge pressure over his relationship with Jo Marney, a 25-year-old party activist who was found to have sent racist text and social media messages.
The furore prompted a meeting of Ukip’s NEC on Sunday, which decided on a no confidence vote on his leadership. It was supported by all those present, apart from Bolton.
A statement from the party chairman, Paul Oakden, said the NEC meeting heard a statement from Bolton, after which members “asked a number of questions pertaining to that coverage”.
It said: “At the conclusion of that discussion, the committee took the decision to hold a vote of no confidence in the leadership of Henry Bolton. The vote was carried unanimously with the exception of the leader.”
Oakden said later that Bolton did not have any apparent plans to quit. He told LBC radio: “I think Henry Bolton certainly recognises the strength of feeling that there is within the NEC, but equally he feels that he is the right man to take the party forward.”
The emergency meeting will take place within 28 days, unless Bolton were to resign beforehand. Under Ukip rules, at least 250 members will need to gather for the vote.
It marks yet another crisis for a party now potentially seeking its fifth permanent leader since Nigel Farage stepped down from the role just over 18 months ago. The party is desperately struggling to generate funds and a sense of purpose after the Brexit vote.
As well as the NEC, Bolton has lost the support of most of the party’s other senior figures, several of whom have resigned having been deeply disquieted by the way he handled the revelations about Marney.
Bolton, 54, began a relationship with Marney, a Ukip activist and model, at Christmas, but said it ended following reporting of the offensive messages, which included racist terms about Meghan Markle, Prince Harry’s fiancee.
The relationship brought an end to his marriage to his wife, Tatiana, with whom he has two children. They live in Vienna where she supports the family – his Ukip role is unpaid – through a job with the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Neil Hamilton, the former Conservative MP who is now Ukip’s leader in Wales, said Bolton should resign immediately. “If he forces us to hold an EGM, he will only humiliate himself further,” Hamilton said. “His recent behaviour has been so irrational, he should seek psychological help.”
Hamilton said “a calm, experienced person” such as Gerard Batten or Mike Hookem, both Ukip MEPs, should be rapidly installed as interim leader.
In interviews before the meeting on Sunday, Bolton said he had done nothing wrong in his relationship with Marney, and that a new leadership election to replace him would be “unviable” for Ukip’s finances and could finish it as a party.
“If the NEC decides to go down the route of months of further infighting and further negative media scrutiny by deciding to pass a vote of no confidence in me, then I think that the reality is that the party is probably over,” he told ITV’s Peston on Sunday show.
Bolton said he did not feel the need to apologise for the situation: “I don’t believe I’ve done anything wrong. My own personal life is a bit of a mess at the moment and I need to sort that out, of course, but I’m not letting it distract me one iota from my job as the leader.”
His position has been weakened by a series of resignations by leading Ukip figures, including the MEPs Bill Etheridge and Jonathan Arnott, the latter of whom left the party. On Sunday, Batten said Bolton should quit.
Batten later tweeted that he had resigned as the party’s Brexit spokesman, calling Bolton’s refusal to stand down “a fiasco”.
Nigel Farage: November 2010 to September 2016
In the last period of stability for the party, Farage led Ukip to win almost 4m votes in the 2015 general election, making them the third-biggest party by vote share.
Diane James: 16 September 2016 to 5 October 2016
Things went awry shortly after the MEP succeeded Farage in the wake of the Brexit referendum. In just 18 days James was gone, saying splits at the top of the party made it impossible for her to do the job.
Farage again: October 2016 to November 2016
Farage held the fort as interim leader ahead of a new election.
Paul Nuttall: November 2016 to June 2017
The former deputy leader confidently predicted he would help Ukip replace Labour. But this ambition crumbled amid questions about his credibility and a failed tilt at the Stoke Central by-election. He stepped down after Ukip slumped to below 600,000 votes in the 2017 election.
Steve Crowther: June 2017 to September 2017
The former party chair stepped up as interim leader as members voted on a permanent replacement.
Henry Bolton: September 2017 to present
The little-known former army officer beat off six challengers to win, positioning himself as the sensible candidate who would revamp the party structure. But an unexciting start to his tenure turned chaotic after he began a relationship with much younger activist Jo Marney, who turned out to have sent deeply offensive messages.
But in an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live’s Pienaar on Politics, Bolton said the NEC should be “concerned more about the elements within the party that are busy engaged in infighting and in undermining the party and its coherence”.
He said: “They are not a court of moral judgment and indeed while my personal life is of public interest, this is a matter of the survival and the future of the United Kingdom Independence party, and that is what they should be looking at.”
Asked about the impact of Marney’s messages, he said: “I did not produce them. They were produced before I even met Jo Marney. She has resigned from the party. She has made a public statement and a statement to the party members apologising profusely and she is appalled at what happened.”
Bolton was chosen by Ukip members in the hope that the former soldier and police officer would be a calming, organised presence who could stabilise the party after a chaotic period.
Farage’s initial replacement as leader, Diane James, resigned after 18 days, saying she could not work with Ukip’s hierarchy. Her successor, Paul Nuttall, encountered controversy over his claim to have lost friends at the Hillsborough football disaster, and led the party to terrible results in the local and general elections.
Bolton narrowly won the leadership amid a crowded field of seven candidates, beating into second the far-right anti-Islam candidate Anne Marie Waters, who was herself seen as likely to split the party.
Even before the criticism of his relationship with Marney, Bolton’s tenure as leader had been viewed by many in the party as disappointing, with little attention on his policies. Some senior figures said Bolton was distant and difficult to track down.