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After the Brexit vote, Britain's independence party struggles with 'existential crisis'

After the Brexit vote, Britain's independence party struggles with 'existential crisis'
In this Sept. 26, 2014, photo, Steven Woolfe of Britain's U.K. Independence Party speaks in London. (Gareth Fuller / Associated Press)

In the days after Britain voted to leave the 28-nation European Union, the leader of the far-right U.K. Independence Party triumphantly resigned, declaring that his political ambitions had been achieved.

But as the country grapples with Brexit-related political and economic turmoil after the June referendum, the party that Nigel Farage worked to build also is facing a crisis.

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The party recently has been referred to as "ungovernable" and at risk of falling into a "death spiral" by the party's former immigration spokesman, who was widely considered the front-runner to succeed Farage.

Steven Woolfe chose to resign this week, announcing that the party had been consumed by infighting and had lost its way.

"I believe that a strong UKIP would hold this government's feet to the fire and make sure it delivers a clean Brexit," Woolfe, a member of the European Parliament, said in a resignation statement. "However, I have come to the conclusion that UKIP is ungovernable without Nigel Farage leading it and the referendum cause to unite it."

UKIP was founded in 1993 with the central policy of seeing Britain leave the EU. It branded itself as the country's first genuinely populist party and spoke to the working-class voters who felt disenfranchised by mainstream parties.

It tapped into people's feelings of frustration with bureaucracy, rising immigration, declining living standards and what they saw as an undemocratic, wasteful EU.

During the 2015 election, UKIP amassed nearly 4 million votes, an all-time high.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to hold a referendum on EU membership was largely born out of a desire to halt UKIP's rise and stop euroskeptic wings of his Conservative Party from migrating over.

But after 52% of referendum voters favored the core issue UKIP championed, some observers say, the party lost not only its charismatic leader but its common enemy. And, some observers say, it appears to have turned on itself.

Party leadership candidate Raheem Kassam has said UKIP is in the midst of an "existential crisis." He said the party currently "doesn't know what it stands for, it doesn't know where it's going."

Woolfe said the party has let down itself and the British public.

"I think unless someone very quickly can wrestle with the issues that they've got, then we will see the loss of something that I think shouldn't be lost … the loss of the party, their influence, the goodwill that the British public have with them," he said in a BBC interview. "This won't be good for British politics."

Prime Minister Theresa May of the Conservative Party has said she will trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the process by which Britain will formally start to negotiate a two-year exit from the EU, by the end of March.

Impassioned debates are taking place about what the exit will look like, namely whether Britain will lose access to the single market in return for total control over its borders — a stance that is being referred to as "hard Brexit," compared with a softer, or more compromised position.

Contrary to giving UKIP plenty to continue fighting for, observers argue that the referendum has actually taken away some of the movement's thunder.

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"Once the referendum was done and Britain had to some extent decided to withdraw from the EU, the essence, the raison d'être of the party was fulfilled," said politics professor Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield.

"The issue around EU membership has become a mainstream issue now in a way it wasn't before. The issue about hard or soft Brexit are now issues that are dominant across the political spectrum," he said. "The UKIP agenda used to be periphery, now it's everywhere."

Matthew Goodwin, politics professor at the University of Kent and a senior visiting fellow at the London-based think tank Chatham House, said the party's future has never looked more uncertain.

"The party is grappling with several major problems; a lack of money, members, infighting, a leadership vacuum and a new Conservative prime minister who appears determined to park her tanks on UKIP's lawn," Goodwin said.

Farage has temporarily stepped into the leadership void while a replacement is named, but finding a successor has not been easy. The party has been made up of a small group of strong-willed politicians who had rejected the mainstream but also often expressed disdain for each other.

Woolfe was hospitalized this month for three days following an altercation with a fellow UKIP member of the European Parliament, Mike Hookem, during a party meeting in Strasbourg. Hookem has "categorically" denied throwing a punch at his colleague.

UKIP's Diane James was briefly named leader in September but announced she was stepping aside after just 18 days in the job. She cited personal and professional reasons, including that she did not have the backing of her party members.

A new leader is expected to be announced Nov. 28.

UKIP's chairman, Paul Oakden, has sought to reassure supporters, but when pressed in a recent TV interview about how unified the party was, he answered in the future tense: "We're going to be very united."

Boyle is a special correspondent.

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