UKIP 'at breaking point' after European Parliament bust-up that landed MEP in hospital

Nigel Farage (center), United Kingdom Independence Party member and Member of the European Parliament, talks to journalists as he leaves the Hautepierre Hospital in Strasbourg, France on Oct 6, 2016.
Nigel Farage (center), United Kingdom Independence Party member and Member of the European Parliament, talks to journalists as he leaves the Hautepierre Hospital in Strasbourg, France on Oct 6, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON (AFP/REUTERS) - British United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) Member of the European Parliament Steven Woolfe is being kept in hospital for two more days, a colleague said on Friday (Oct 7), after he collapsed following a bust-up in the European Parliament that threatens to tear apart a key force behind Brexit.

UKIP leader Nigel Farage, whose resignation announcement after the June vote to leave the EU brought party tensions to the surface, has announced an internal investigation into Thursday's incident.

European Parliament president Martin Schulz also announced a probe "as a matter of urgency" into the incident which saw Mr Woolfe collapse unconscious on an elevated walkway in the parliament building in Strasbourg.

"The reported facts are extremely serious. It goes without saying that disrespectful and violent behaviour does not have a place in the European Parliament," Mr Schulz said in a statement.

Mr Woolfe, a former barrister, accused fellow MEP Mike Hookem, 62, a former soldier, of hitting him.

"Mike came at me and landed a blow," Mr Woolfe was quoted by the Daily Mail as saying from his French hospital bed.

Mr Hookem has denied punching Mr Woolfe, saying: "I did not hit Steven and I did not see him hit his head."

"It was ... handbags at dawn," he told BBC TV the day after the clash.

Mr Hookem said the clash occurred as Mr Woolfe explained to the meeting why he had said he was considering joining Britain's ruling Conservative Party despite putting his name forward to replace the leader who resigned this week after just 18 days.

"He stood up in front of everybody and said across the room to me 'let's take it outside the room'... taking his jacket off to go outside. I then followed him out into an ante-room," he told the BBC.

"When I walked in, he approached me to attack me. I defended myself. There were no punches thrown, there was no face-slapping there was nothing. There was a bit of a scuffle but there was no physical violence."

Mr Woolfe was rushed to hospital and initially said to be in a serious condition after suffering two "epileptic-like fits" and passing out.

UKIP MEP Nathan Gill said Mr Woolfe had been asked to stay "for observation in the hospital's neurological ward for the next couple of days".

Mr Gill added that Mr Woolfe did not want the police involved.

The incident caps an extraordinary week for the party that effectively forced then Prime Minister David Cameron to call a referendum on European Union membership and was the third-largest party by votes cast in last year's election.

Ms Diane James, UKIP's newly nominated leader, announced she was stepping down on Tuesday, just 18 days after winning a leadership contest, saying she did not have the "full support" of the party's MEPs.

Party chairman Paul Oakden said Ms James was shaken after being spat at in a London train station shortly after the leadership announcement.

UKIP's main backer Arron Banks has threatened to leave the party, saying there were "Tory troublemakers and fifth columnists" in its ranks.

"People have worked too long and too hard to get UKIP where it is today, but it is clear that we ourselves are at breaking point," Mr Banks said in a statement on Thursday.

The insurance millionaire is reportedly considering setting up a new right-wing party.

Party colleagues said the fight broke out at a party meeting after Mr Woolfe admitted he had considered joining Prime Minister Theresa May's Conservatives.

Mr Woolfe said he had decided to stay with UKIP to ensure the government delivers Brexit.

"I wasn't bruising for a scrap. I asked to deal with the matter outside of the room because it was flaring up in the meeting and upsetting everybody and Mike clearly read that totally the wrong way.

"The door frame took the biggest hit after I was shoved into it and I knew I'd taken a whack and was pretty shaken," he told the Daily Mail.

Mr Woolfe said he banged his head as he fell.

"I began feeling woozy and knew something wasn't right so I ran out to get help. I started shouting 'Where is the medical centre?' and was pointed over a walkway bridge. That's the last I can remember.

"Next thing I know, I woke up surrounded by parliament staff, lying on the floor."

Commentators said the incident underlined the struggle unleashed after veteran leader Farage announced in July he was stepping down, having achieved his life's ambition of a vote to leave the EU.

"UKIP Out For the Count," read a front-page headline in the Daily Mail, whose columnist Dominic Sandbrook wrote: "Unless it can somehow rise above its vicious court politics, UKIP's day is done."

The Times called the incident "dangerous, embarrassing and potentially tragic" and warned the party would lose votes if its elected representatives "behave like football hooligans on the lash".