Nigel Farage has called on Ukip to “put country before party” as he claimed a new “united” campaign for Britain to leave the European Union was on course for victory.
Addressing the party’s annual conference in Doncaster, the Ukip leader hailed the formation of the Leave EU organisation, which brings together a number of smaller groups, and urged activists to put all their energy into fighting the referendum on the UK’s future in the EU.
But Mr Farage’s speech was in danger of being overshadowed by professional controversialist Katie Hopkins’s claim that the photo of three year-old Aylan Kurdi, who drowned with his mother and brother trying to cross from Turkey to Greece by boat, had been “staged”.
The eurosceptic leader said he doubted that the photo was staged but said he would not comment on Ms Hopkins.
Speaking without a script on the conference stage at Doncaster racecourse, Mr Farage blamed “fear of that woman north of the border” for Ukip’s failure to return more than one MP at the general election, claiming concerns over Nicola Sturgeon’s ability to hold sway in Westminster had sent voters to the Conservatives.
He told supporters that Ukip was “alive and kicking” and he expected them to make “significant” gains at the elections in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland next year.
But the eurosceptic leader said a so-called Brexit was “dearer to my heart” even than Ukip.
He said: “This is the moment to put country before party. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity to get back the independence and self-government of this nation.
“Our message is clear, we want our country back.”
Ukip donor Arron Banks, who is behind the Leave EU coalition, has “no personal political ambition”, Mr Farage said as he praised the group for “putting their hands in their pockets” and saying “money is no object”.
The Ukip leader said: “Ukip will now stand hand in hand with Leave EU, we will work together as a united cause of all the eurosceptic groups that want to leave the European Union.
“We are together, we are united, and I believe that the tide has turned, I think that something is changing out there and I believe we’re on course to win the most historic and the most important political victory in any of our lifetimes.”
He denied suggestions there had been a falling out behind the scenes after For Britain, which was billed to appear on the conference stage, said it would not be taking part and has not signed up to the overarching group.
Mr Farage told the Press Association: “The significance of what’s happening here today in Doncaster is all those little different, disparate groups, of whom it had been said they were all run by egomaniacs, all wanted to be big fish in small ponds, would never work together, today every single one of them is being represented on the platform.”
Asked about suggestions that Leave EU was a front campaign that would allow Mr Farage to lead the official No campaign, he replied: “They want to get out more these people. Actually the other group who are eurosceptic but don’t advocate leaving are funded by Ukip backers as well.”
A For Britain spokesman said: “Unfortunately, for scheduling reasons we were unable to send any of our prominent supporters to Doncaster for this event so we will not be appearing on the stage at Ukip conference. We alerted Ukip to this a couple of weeks ago.
“We wish Nigel Farage and TheKnow/ Leave EU the best of luck in their endeavours.”