Ukip’s only member of parliament, Douglas Carswell, has quit the party to become an independent MP, prompting a backlash from within Ukip and among its supporters.
Carswell, who defected from the Conservative party to Ukip in August 2014, said he was leaving “amicably, cheerfully and in the knowledge that we won”.
He said he would not be standing down before the next general election, and claimed there was no need for a byelection because he was not joining another party. Ukip, he added, had achieved its founding aims with the vote to leave the EU. “After 24 years, we have done it. Brexit is in good hands,” he said.
Shortly after the announcement on Saturday, the Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, said the party had not “benefited financially or organisationally from having Douglas in Westminster”.
“With this in mind, his departure will make no difference to my ability or focus on delivering the reforms I promised when elected as leader,” he said.
In a post on his website and an email to his constituents, Carswell said: “It has been an extraordinary achievement. Ukip, my party, which was founded in 1993 in order to get Britain out of the European Union, has now achieved what we were established to do.
“Like many of you, I switched to Ukip because I desperately wanted us to leave the EU. Now we can be certain that that is going to happen, I have decided that I will be leaving Ukip.
“I will not be switching parties, nor crossing the floor to the Conservatives, so do not need to call a byelection, as I did when switching from the Conservatives to Ukip. I will simply be the member of parliament for Clacton, sitting as an independent.”
Carswell said Ukip had not won many seats in parliament, but that “in a way, we are the most successful political party in Britain ever”.
In a sign of the deep divisions within the party, however, Carswell immediately faced calls from the Ukip donor Arron Banks to trigger a byelection so the businessman could stand against him.
Andy Wigmore, a spokesman for Banks, said: “The net has been closing in. There is a Ukip national executive committee meeting on Monday and he [Carswell] knew he was for the chop, so jumped. He should call a byelection and Arron will stand against him.”
Responding to Carswell’s resignation on Twitter, Banks tweeted a smiley face emoji and a green tick.
Carswell was re-elected in Clacton at the 2015 general election with a majority of 3,437, beating the Tories into second place. It was a more slender majority than the 12,404 he achieved in the 2014 byelection, sparked by his defection to Ukip.
The MP has been at the centre of a battle for control of Ukip since Nigel Farage departed as leader in July last year, shortly after the UK voted to leave the EU. His decision to leave comes just days after Farage accused him of preventing Ukip from becoming a radical anti-immigration party in the wake of the EU referendum.
“The time has now come to have a clean break,” Farage said. “To make sure we don’t have influences like Carswell taking us away from the key arguments like immigration. There have been some in Ukip who want to turn us into a mainstream political party with very bland messages and I would say Ukip is a radical party or it is nothing.”
Farage denied that his desire to see Carswell expelled from the party was connected to leaked emails that suggested the MP had blocked a move to grant Farage a peerage. Party sources insisted Carswell was not subject to any formal disciplinary procedures, and Nuttall, who was recently defeated in the Stoke Central byelection by Labour’s Gareth Snell, had no prerogative power to expel him, even if he should wish to do so.
Carswell met the Ukip chairman, Paul Oakden, earlier this month, saying afterwards that the meeting was amicable and he intended to continue to sit as a Ukip MP. He played down reports that he was on the verge of returning to the Conservative party, telling the Guardian: “I’m Ukip 100%”.
Banks, however, a close Farage ally, announced that he intended to stand against Carswell in Clacton at the next election.
A Ukip source said at the time that Oakden had been asked to meet Carswell to establish the facts behind the leaked email row, but the MP was not subject to formal disciplinary proceedings.
“The matter of whether a party member remains a member of the party is a matter for the NEC,” the source said. “Nigel said… he wanted to expel Douglas in 2015. But it was impossible to do, because the party leader does not have that power. Neither does Paul Nuttall. It is not in Paul’s gift, because if a party leader had that sort of power, the possibility of dictatorial control would be appalling.
“That’s why all parties have processes and systems to ensure fair play. There is no formal process to kick him out of the party or discipline him, it is a fact-finding exercise.”
Carswell’s departure has sparked fresh doubt over Ukip’s sustainability as Britain begins the process of leaving the EU. When asked about the party’s future, Farage has likened Ukip to “the turkeys that have voted for Christmas”.
“At the moment there is huge trust in Theresa May to deliver Brexit, but I think already we are beginning to see concessions being made, over fishing, the fact that she wants to stay in the European arrest warrant,” he said.
“My guess is that a year down the road, there will be a lot of people who are very frustrated with the Brexit process. So Ukip needs to bide its time and get its messages right.”