Leadership favourite Steven Woolfe excluded after missing nomination deadline by 17 minutes
Three members of UKIP's ruling body have resigned after leadership favourite Steven Woolfe was barred from standing because his application was 17 minutes late.
The decision has triggered allegations of a "coup" to change the direction of the party after the departure of Nigel Farage, who backed Mr Woolfe, and tipped UKIP into civil war.
The party's National Executive Committee said a "clear majority" of its members had found the UKIP immigration spokesman to be "ineligible" to run in the leadership race "as a result of a late submission".
But the move sparked the immediate resignation of three members of the NEC who accused the ruling body of "escalating megalomania" and said it was "no longer fit for purpose".
A statement signed by MEPs Victoria Ayling, Michael McGough and Raymond Finch said: "It has now reached the stage where the party's national executive has essentially usurped full governance of the party and is collectively in pursuit of oligarchy, self-promotion and cronyism.
"It must not be right that a handful individuals entrusted with the oversight of good governance and accountability on behalf of the membership can accord themselves absolute power over the running of the UK's third largest political party."
The party, which attracted 3.8 million votes in the UK's general election, is now suffering the same deep divisions that have afflicted Labour and the Conservatives in the wake of the EU referendum.
Ms Ayling, has accused its only MP Douglas Carswell and Neil Hamilton, a Welsh Assembly member, of attempting a "coup".
Mr Woolfe said he was "extremely disappointed" by the decision and attacked the NEC for leaking personal information to the press and failing to operate in a professional manner.
He said: "Over the course of this leadership election, the NEC has proven it is not fit for purpose and it confirmed many members' rears that it is neither effective nor professional in the way it governs the party."
Statement: I am extremely disappointed by the UKIP NEC decision to exclude me from the party’s leadership election. https://t.co/6eiWV9DQGv— Steven Woolfe MEP (@Steven_Woolfe) August 3, 2016
'Things have gone too far'
UKIP's main donor Arron Banks, who backs Mr Woolfe, has now threatened to split the party.
He told Sky News: "Things (have) gone too far. Maybe UKIP race has had its run. It's possible it's time to have another sensible party to take on Labour."
Mr Farage, who also backs Mr Woolfe, has been sniping from the sidelines, branding NEC members "total amateurs who come to London once a month with sandwiches in their rucksacks, to attend NEC meetings that normally last seven hours".
Mr Woolfe missed the deadline to submit his nomination application on Sunday and admitted failing to declare a criminal conviction.
The NEC confirmed the candidates to go forward for the leadership race are the MEPs Bill Etheridge, Diane James and Jonathan Arnott. Also running will be Lisa Duffy, Phillip Broughton and Elizabeth Jones.
Ms James has now emerged as the new favourite and has tweeted about broadening the party's appeal to win elections.
While one of the party's most respected MEPs, she is not without tarnish, having had had to apologise after claiming migration from Romania was a problem because of the "crime associated with Romanians".
Mr Carswell and the architect of UKIP's general election manifesto Suzanne Evans are backing the relatively unknown Cambridgeshire councillor and former party director, Ms Duffy.
Ms Duffy, a former TK Maxx store manager, has talked about banning Muslim schools, ending the abuse of the NHS by foreigners and offers a "common sense" approach to the party leadership.
She was the national coordinator of the UKIP Young Independence scheme and is credited with taking membership from just three people to over 1,000.