New UKIP leader Diane James: Member of European Parliament with large boots to fill

Diane James gives an address at the UK Independence Party Autumn Conference in Bournemouth, England, on Sept 16, 2016.
Diane James gives an address at the UK Independence Party Autumn Conference in Bournemouth, England, on Sept 16, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

BOURNEMOUTH (AFP) - New United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) leader Diane James has earned a reputation for tough professionalism with her colleagues, qualities she will need in abundance to unite a party rattled by Mr Nigel Farage's departure.

The 56-year-old narrowly missed out on becoming the party's first MP in 2013 and has vowed to turn the eurosceptic movement into a "formidable winning machine". She is also a member of the European Parliament.

Although less outspoken than the charismatic Mr Farage, who resigned in July after achieving his political dream of helping Britain leave the European Union, James has still contributed to the controversy that often follows the anti mass-immigration party.

She apologised after warning of "crime associated with Romanians" while campaigning to become an MP, and raised eyebrows after praising Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I admire him from the point of view that he's standing up for his country," said James, who was her party's justice and home affairs spokesman. "He's very nationalist. I do admire him. He is a very strong leader."

Ms James was born in Bedford, central England, on November 20, 1959, to an engineer father and a housewife mother. She studied business studies and tourism with languages at university, becoming fluent in French and German.

Her language skills helped her land a job with a German pharmaceutical company, before she moved into the healthcare sector in the 1980s, studying the US system.

"I had a very good feel for why the US model is quite frankly failing and the pitfalls that are there if the UK doesn't get it right," she told local newspaper the Southern Daily Echo in 2013.

Ms James then set up her own consultancy business to help companies market their products in international healthcare systems.

She told the Southern Daily Echo she had been a long-time Conservative supporter until becoming "totally disillusioned" with its leadership in the 2000s.

Her first active foray into politics came in 2006, when she successfully ran as an independent in a local council by-election in Surrey.

"I've been involved in politics for seven years now and I've learned a hell of a lot," she told the newspaper, before explaining her switch to UKIP.

"I did a lot of soul searching and I decided that UKIP was the only party that I could perceive as credible and see where I would fit."

She lost her council seat, but was elected to the European Parliament in 2014, and her profile was raised with appearances on BBC's Question Time and at Cambridge University's debating society.

Her name was mentioned as a potential leader when Farage announced he was to step down, and became the hot favourite when her main rival, Mr Steven Woolfe, was ruled out of the race after failing to submit his application in time.

Ms James has said she hopes to lead UKIP in becoming "the UK's official opposition party after the next election".

However, the spectre of Mr Farage will loom large over her leadership, the outgoing leader having become synonymous with the party in the public imagination.

She also faces internal splits over the direction of the party now its main purpose has been fulfilled, but claimed she was up for the challenge during a recent article in the FT.

"UKIP needs a transparent, ambitious, motivated leader to achieve this, one who can make the party a formidable winning machine," she wrote. "I am that woman."