Some may have thought UKIP was sliding into irrelevance, but one candidate vying to lead the party looks set to create the UK's first European-style, right-wing party focused on attacking Muslims
Starting from obscure origins 20 years ago, the United Kingdom Independence Party changed the nature of the British debate on the European Union and forced the Brexit referendum, which has altered Britain's destiny as a nation.
But ever since the Brexit vote in June 2016, UKIP has subsided into irrelevance.
UKIP is being reborn as a nakedly anti-Islamic political party comparable to Marine Le Pen's Front National in France or Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom in the Netherlands
This year's general election result was a disaster. Afterwards, its useless leader, Paul Nuttall, resigned, and we all assumed that UKIP was set to slide into total irrelevance.
I am starting to wonder whether we were wrong.
There is mounting evidence that UKIP is changing shape, with thousands of new members coming on board.
Only this time the focus is no longer Brexit and the European Union.
An exit poll predicting that UKIP led by Paul Nuttall will not win any seats in the British general election is projected onto BBC Broadcasting House in London on 8 June 2017 (AFP)
UKIP is being reborn as a nakedly anti-Islamic political party comparable to Marine Le Pen's Front National in France or Geert Wilders' Party for Freedom in the Netherlands - and British Muslims have reason to feel afraid.
Almost unnoticed by the press, the battle to succeed the failed Paul Nuttall has turned into a battle for the future of UKIP itself.
Race to the bottom
Peter Whittle, formerly Nuttall’s deputy, is frontrunner. He campaigned last year to become "London’s first gay mayor" and wants to turn UKIP into a "cultural movement" opposed to multiculturalism.
Whittle and Farage celebrate St George's Day celebration in Leadenhall Market in London on 22 April 2016 (AFP)
Meanwhile John Rees-Evans, who once claimed that a gay donkey had attempted to rape his horse, has made headlines for proposing that British Indians, British Tanzanians and other dual nationals be paid £9,000 ($11,500) and health insurance to leave the country.
More harmless is eccentric entrepreneur Aidan Powlesland, who wants to mine the asteroid belt and moons of Jupiter and Saturn.
But the candidate who is no laughing matter, and who has caught my eye most of all, is Anne Marie Waters.
Some critics have dismissed her as an incompetent and inarticulate right-winger. That is a mistake.
Some critics have dismissed Anne Marie Waters as an incompetent and inarticulate right-winger. That is a mistake
Waters is a sophisticated figure. She speaks with composure. Her campaign video is a polished piece of work.
Instead, she appears to see herself as a feminist. She has built her entire political career around a conviction that Islam destroys the rights of women.
Waters was born and grew up in Dublin, lived in Germany as a teenager and came to the UK to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University.
But, she says in her campaign video, "I have always felt the deepest sense of belonging in Britain."
'Like absolute dirt'
It was here, while studying for a second degree in law, that Waters reportedly came to believe that Sharia, or Islamic, law treated women "like absolute dirt".
Anne Marie Waters in September 2016 (Wikicommons)
A lesbian and student LGBT campaigner, she found it "intolerable" that sharia courts were allowed to exist in this country.
Waters joined One Law for All, a secularist organisation which campaigns against sharia law, is run by Iranian human rights activist and ex-Muslim Maryam Namazie - and that has since condemned her.
She also twice tried unsuccessfully to run as a parliamentary candidate for Labour. The Observer columnist Nick Cohen has written that he then "knew and admired her as a principled Labour activist".
But 2013 was a turning point for Waters. She left the Labour Party, partly on account of what she saw as its "betrayal of women" in its refusal to oppose Islam.
In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch, an anti-sharia group which aims "to demonstrate that sharia law is being utilised in Britain in ways that are deeply damaging to women's rights and the rights of children".
In January 2016, she joined forces with Tommy Robinson, the former head of the English Defence League, to launch the UK arm of Pegida, the German organisation which fights what it calls "the Islamicisation of our countries".
Tommy Robinson is escorted away by police from a Britain First march and an English Defence League march in central London this April weeks after the deadly attack against the British Parliament (AFP)
But Pegida UK fizzled out within a few months.
Amid all of this, Waters switched her party-political allegiances to UKIP. She ran in council elections and in the 2015 general election as the candidate for Lewisham East.
Now she is bringing her anti-Islamic rhetoric to UKIP’s national forum.
In early June, the day after Nuttal stepped down, Waters announced her intention to stand in the leadership contest. She provocatively launched her leadership bid in Rotherham, the location of decades-long child sexual abuse committed by Asian gangs.
UKIP’s national executive committee surprisingly allowed Waters to stand in the leadership election, and she continues to campaign with gusto.
Her campaign pledges include a temporary freeze on immigration, a burqa ban and a complete end to "immigration from societies that have opposing views to ours".
She has laid the blame for the recent revelations about a Newcastle sexual grooming gang on Islam, asking: "Why are we more concerned about causing offence than we are about the thousands of girls being gang-raped all over England as we sit here?"
The rise of Waters has been greeted with horror by the UKIP establishment. Nuttall deselected her as a parliamentary candidate for this year's election, saying that her views go "way above and beyond" party policy.
Why are we more concerned about causing offence than we are about the thousands of girls being gang-raped all over England as we sit here?
- UKIP leadership candidate Anne Marie Waters
Member of the European Parliament Mike Hookem resigned as deputy whip on hearing that Waters would be allowed to stand for the leadership, saying he would not "turn a blind eye" to extremism.
Fellow MEP Bill Etheridge withdrew his own leadership bid in July, warning that both Waters and Peter Whittle were threatening to take the party in a "very dark" direction.
On the verge
But Waters’ message seems to have struck a chord. As many as 1,000 new members are reported to have joined UKIP since she announced her leadership bid. This may seem like a small number, but considering that Nuttall won the last leadership election with only 9,622 votes, it is significant.
Certainly, Waters is a more familiar figure in a European context. Her unwavering criticism of Islam and opposition to immigration bears clear resemblance to the politics of Geert Wilders, who has endorsed her on Twitter as "very brave, intelligent and strong" and a "real freedom fighter".
I find it genuinely scary that a serious political party is on the verge of going down this route
- UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge
She is perhaps even closer to Marine Le Pen in France. Despite her protestations to the contrary, it looks very much like her mission is to create a European-style right-wing party which concentrates on attacking Muslims.
Such a party has never existed in Britain before.
Etheridge said when he withdrew his leadership bid: "We actually now have a group within the party who believe ... we should take on strongly a single issue – and that single issue is Islam."
He continued: "Some of the comments that I have heard during just two unofficial hustings have frightened me. I find it genuinely scary that a serious political party is on the verge of going down this route."
Should we be worried?
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It's too early to say. Perhaps an anti-Islamic UKIP under Anne Marie Waters would fizzle out like Pegida UK. But if we know one thing about modern British politics, it has become totally unpredictable.
It may be that UKIP does not elect Waters, or that it does but remains a hollowed-out political party.
Or it could be that she emerges as something important and very dangerous. The trajectory of recent events is on her side.
I don't know which it will be. What is absolutely apparent is that Anne Marie Waters is not a happy prospect for British Islam or – I believe – for Britain.
- Peter Oborne won best commentary/blogging in 2017 and was named freelancer of the year in 2016 at the Online Media Awards for articles he wrote for Middle East Eye. He also was British Press Awards Columnist of the Year 2013. He resigned as chief political columnist of the Daily Telegraph in 2015. His books include The Triumph of the Political Class, The Rise of Political Lying, and Why the West is Wrong about Nuclear Iran.
Additional research by Richard Assheton.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Anne Marie Waters seen in her campaign video (YouTube)