UKIP leadership candidate Lisa Duffy has called on Steven Woolfe's supporters to "move on" after he was excluded from the contest for submitting his application form 17 minutes late.
She praised the party's national executive committee (NEC) for taking the "tough decision" to leave Woolfe – long tipped as the frontrunner to replace Nigel Farage – off the ballot paper.
In an interview with BuzzFeed News, she said: "How can it be harsh when you have a deadline on an application form and everyone else made it? There’s a rule for a reason. While I completely sympathise with Steven and his team, we had three weeks to get our applications in."
Three members of the NEC have quit in protest over the decision, attacking the organisation’s "oligarchy, self-promotion and cronyism" – and there are now fears of a potential split within the party.
But Duffy, a Cambridgeshire councillor, said: "The NEC are there for a reason, they’re put there by our membership to make tough decisions, they’ve made a tough decision. We just all have to live with it and move on.
"I’m really sorry Steven’s not on the ballot paper but his team need to get behind another candidate or choose not to vote. This is about UKIP as a whole, not about an individual."
Duffy, 48, is one of six candidates vying to replace Farage as UKIP leader – alongside Diane James, Bill Etheridge, Elizabeth Jones, Jonathan Arnott, and Phillip Broughton.
The mother of six is currently chief of staff to MEP Patrick O'Flynn and a former director of UKIP who used to work as a manager in TK Maxx and Asda before joining politics.
Duffy said she represented the "grassroots" of UKIP and had done a lot to nurture talent within the party: "I remember when I did Diane James’ assessment and I phoned the party chairman up and I said, 'I’ve just found you a superstar.'
"So I’ve been on a journey with these candidates, with these MEPs – they’ve gone through my assessment process and I’ve been on their journeys with them. They’re people I respect immensely, but I think I’ve got better skills than them in being able to deliver the party to phase two."
That second phase is making sure UKIP moves on from Europe and has a bigger presence in Westminster. At the moment the party has just one MP, Douglas Carswell, and Duffy is confident of boosting this number at the 2020 general election.
"What we need to show now is just because it's been Tory–Labour, Tory–Labour, it doesn’t need to be like that – you can make a difference," she said.
One of her key supporters, former deputy UKIP chair Suzanne Evans, has described the party as a "rugby club on tour". Does Duffy agree with that? "Suzanne is an individual," she said. "What I believe UKIP needs is a team, it needs a leader which has the ability to grow and build and develop, I’ve got those skills."
Is it important for UKIP to have a woman leader? "I think what’s important is to have the right leader. Of course I want it to be a female because I want it to be me but I don’t think it’s essential for the party to say, ‘Oh, it’s right to have a girl next.'"
Duffy said her experience as a mother meant she understood "about juggling different balls" and "about real life", adding: "I think that brings a level of understanding but I think what really helps me is being a local councillor."
Duffy is set to unveil her "positive modern vision for British Islam" next week. She confirmed that as part of this, she will call for a ban on Muslim faith schools.
"The team have looked into the evidence that there is a level of radicalisation that has come from those faith schools so it’s about making sure that we tackle radicalisation," she said.
She said she wanted to see Islam taught in schools along with "all the other religions" but added: "What we don’t want to do is allow radicalisation to start taking place in any kind of faith school because that’s where the problems start – look what’s happening in Europe at the moment, in America. We’ve got to stop this."
Duffy insisted she was trying to integrate communities not divide them. "It’s about equality, I want to make sure we work with the Muslim community, that we make sure that their young females have the same opportunities as a young Christian female.
"We will be outlining a lot more about Sharia law but needless to say I don’t think it benefits everybody and I certainly don’t think Sharia law should overtake British law at all."
She rejected claims that Britain has become more divided since the EU referendum – despite increased reports of xenophobic attacks. "No not at all," she said. "I think we’re still seeing a lot of Project Fear.
"I look around me, I talk to my community – there were a lot of people who were very surprised and not prepared for the result but the country hasn't crashed to its knees and the pound hasn’t gone into a giant black hole."
Emily Ashton is a senior political correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Emily Ashton at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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