UKIP’s party conference has opened in Newport despite its newly-elected leader refusing to attend the event.
Earlier this week, Richard Braine said he would not be coming due to “low ticket sales”, after calling for the event to be cancelled.
Party chair Kirstan Herriot said it was “an insult” for him not to turn up.
UKIP’s leader in Wales, Neil Hamilton, told BBC Wales it was “absurd” that Mr Braine would miss the event for what Mr Hamilton called a “spurious reason”.
Addressing party members later on Friday, Mr Hamilton said UKIP has a very good chance of getting candidates elected at the 2021 assembly election.
Wales, he said, was where UKIP has the best chance of success.
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UKIP has lost 5 out of 7 assembly seats since 2016 to defections, and has struggled badly since helping to secure a leave vote in the 2016 EU referendum.
Having come out on top across the UK in the 2014 European elections, UKIP finished eighth in the polls in May, losing all its MEPs as the Brexit Party – led by former UKIP leader Nigel Farage – swept to victory, raising further questions about UKIP’s future and relevance.
But ahead of the party’s conference at the new International Convention Centre Wales, Mr Hamilton said: “The political establishment continue to claim that UKIP is now irrelevant but, here in Wales, we’ve been proving them wrong.
“We stand up for the ordinary people ignored by the old parties,” the Mid and West Wales AM added.
“I have been leading the fight against all odds to recover our nation’s freedom.
“UKIP is needed now like never before. UKIP is the authentic voice of the people.”
Along with the South Wales Central AM Gareth Bennett, Mr Hamilton is one of UKIP’s two remaining Welsh assembly members since the party won seven seats in 2016.
“We are less than two years away from the 2021 Welsh assembly elections which are a perfect opportunity for UKIP to make further inroads into the Welsh political scene and ensure that voices of reason and common sense are restored to the assembly ﬂoor through the election of additional UKIP assembly members,” Mr Hamilton said.
Mr Braine entered a public row with the party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC) after he called for the cancellation of the event.
Earlier this week, Ms Herriot wrote to members criticising Mr Braine’s “regrettable decision not to attend our own conference due to low ticket sales”.
“Both I and the NEC believe it is a complete insult to the membership to attempt to cancel conference because of a potentially low turn-out,” she said.
“It is also a particular affront to hard-working regional, county and branch officers who have worked hard in encouraging members to attend conference to hear Richard lay out his vision for the future of UKIP.”
Mr Braine was elected UKIP leader last month following Gerard Batten’s resignation.
Mr Hamilton said it was “absurd” that Mr Braine was not attending the event.
“Richard is a novice and he has only been involved in politics a couple of years, he is almost completely unknown,” he told BBC Radio Wales Breakfast.
“This would have been a great opportunity for him to make himself known in Wales and he has turned it down for a totally spurious reason.”
Asked what Mr Braine’s absence, and the limited conference attendance, said about the state of the party, Mr Bennett told the BBC: “We specialise in having bust-ups with each other, and if there are only two of us left [as assembly members] we probably still have an argument.
“So I suppose, for me, it’s business as usual.”
Whether or not the party had a future, he said, was “very difficult to say, given the current political climate”.
“Things are so turbulent at the moment,” he said.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Conservative Party, if they’re going to split, I don’t know what’s going to happen with the Labour Party, if they’re going to split.”
“I have no idea what’s going to happen to UKIP in the next year, and I don’t think in reality anyone else does,” Mr Bennett added.
UKIP holds conference amidst row over leader’s no-show}