Three female MEPs have quit UKIP after the party’s leader Gerard Batten defended a candidate’s comments about rape as “satire”.
Jane Collins, Jill Seymour and Margot Parker will no longer represent UKIP in the European Parliament.
All three have joined the new Brexit Party, which is spearheaded by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
Their departures mean, of the 24 UKIP MEPs elected at the last European Parliament elections in 2014, only four remain as representatives of the party.
A large number of UKIP’s departed MEPs – including the three to quit on Monday – have cited Mr Batten’s leadership as the primary reason for their resignations.
Since taking over in April last year, Mr Batten has reiterated his belief Islam is a “death cult”, introduced policies aimed specifically at Muslims, and employed far-right activist and former English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson as an adviser.
The UKIP leader prompted a new row at the weekend by defending past comments by Carl Benjamin, who is one of the party’s candidates for next month’s European Parliament elections.
Mr Benjamin, who is known by the online alias Sargon of Akkad, told Labour MP Jess Phillips on Twitter: “I wouldn’t even rape you.”
In a TV interview on Sunday, Mr Batten described the tweet as “satire” and described Mr Benjamin, whose Twitter account is now suspended, as a “proponent of free speech”.
Announcing her resignation from UKIP, Ms Collins said: “To have people like Carl Benjamin on the list for the party is something I find disgusting, and to hear Gerard Batten on national TV yesterday defending this man’s use of rape as ‘satire’ made me sick to my stomach.
“I know women who have been raped and the mental and physical destruction it wreaks on these victims and their loved ones is the opposite of satire: it is a tragedy.”
Mrs Seymour claimed she was not “walking away” from UKIP but, under Mr Batten’s leadership, the party had “walked away from me, and its original membership”.
Mrs Parker, who was UKIP deputy chairman and the party’s spokesman on women’s rights and equality, accused Mr Batten of “carrying out a purge of party loyalists” in favour of supporters on Robinson.
“The policies of the leader have now so damaged the party, I feel I must resign my position and membership of UKIP,” she said.
“This I do with great reluctance and sadness in equal measure.
“The leader seems to be engaging on a ‘crusade’ on issues, which are dividing communities up and down the land.”
None of Ms Collins, Mrs Seymour or Mrs Parker had been chosen as UKIP candidates for May’s European Parliament elections, which the UK will participate in should the House of Commons continue to oppose an EU withdrawal agreement.
Last week, Prime Minister Theresa May agreed to delay Brexit until 31 October.
In the last set of European Parliament elections, in 2014, UKIP topped the polls with 27% of the vote.
A UKIP spokesman said: “Both Jill Seymour and Margot Parker wished and expected to be placed at the top of their lists in their respective regions as of last Friday.
“Both gave £1,000 each in UKIP campaign donations this month.
“The leader and the NEC panel reluctantly came to the conclusion that they had not honoured their commitments to the party as described in the MEP Charter of 2013 and as such they were not reselected.
“UKIP is disappointed that they have chosen to side with its opponents, but their motivations are clear.
“UKIP is entering the Euro elections with the three loyal MEPs who have honoured their commitments, alongside a fresh slate of candidates. We expect to win big.”
Last year, UKIP was ordered to pay £175,000 in legal costs over a defamation case brought by three Labour MPs against Ms Collins.
She had claimed the trio knew about child sex abuse in Rotherham and not intervened.
Ms Collins herself had previously been ordered to pay £54,000 in damages to each MP.
:: UKIP’s disappearing MEPs
Of the 24 UKIP MEPs elected at the last European Parliament elections in 2014, only four continue to represent the party.
1. Patrick O’Flynn – QUIT PARTY
2. Stuart Agnew – remains as UKIP MEP
3. Tim Aker – QUIT PARTY
4. Roger Helmer – RESIGNED AS MEP (but replaced by Jonathan Bullock, who later quit UKIP)
5. Margot Parker – QUIT PARTY
6. Gerard Batten – remains as UKIP MEP and party’s leader
7. Jonathan Arnott – QUIT PARTY
8. Paul Nuttall – QUIT PARTY
9. Louise Bours – QUIT PARTY
10. Steven Woolfe – QUIT PARTY
11. David Coburn – QUIT PARTY
12. Nigel Farage – QUIT PARTY
13. Janice Atkinson – EXPELLED
14. Diane James – QUIT PARTY
15. Ray Finch – remains as UKIP MEP
16. William Dartmouth – QUIT PARTY
17. Julia Reid – QUIT PARTY
18. Nathan Gill – QUIT PARTY
19. Jill Seymour – QUIT PARTY
20. Jim Carver – QUIT PARTY
21. Bill Etheridge – QUIT PARTY
22. Jane Collins – QUIT PARTY
23. Amjad Bashir – DEFECTED TO TORIES
24. Mike Hookem – remains as UKIP MEP and party’s deputy leader