New UKIP leader hails Putin as ‘hero,’ whips up social media frenzy

Diane James, the new leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). © Toby Melville
Diane James, who last week replaced Nigel Farage as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP), confirmed Russian President Vladimir Putin is among her political inspirations.

In her first interview as leader, James told BBC Sunday Politics presenter Andrew Neil she couldn’t think of anybody “other than Vladimir Putin” as her main political hero. Then, after some thought, she added former British prime ministers Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill to the list.

Her comments set social media abuzz, with political commentators and journalists alike questioning James’s understanding of Putin’s and her own politics.

“Diane James is a Putin fan so I expect UKIP's next major campaign to feature her riding a horse topless,” comedian and broadcaster Tiernan Douieb tweeted.

City AM pundit Daniel Hamilton thought James’s fondness of Putin showed “a squalid view from the leader of a small-minded party.”

And writer Iain Martin wondered whether British politics could “get any more weird.”

James’s professed love for the Russian leader isn’t entirely new. She ardently praised Putin in a 2015 interview with the Telegraph.

“I admire [Putin] from the point of view that he’s standing up for his country. He is very nationalist,” she said.

“He is a very strong leader. He is putting Russia first, and he has issues with the way the [European Union] encouraged a change of government in the Ukraine which he felt put at risk a Russian population in that country.”

She was also not the first UKIP leader to give Putin her support – Nigel Farage once told the Guardian that he greatly admired the Russian politician as "an operator."

On Sunday, after Neil asked her to confirm once more her heroes include “Putin, Churchill and Thatcher,” James gave an assenting hum.

Farage’s successor, who was announced last Friday, was tipped as the favorite to win for most of the contest. She took the job with 8,451 votes, nearly 50 percent of the voting party membership.