UKIP could be wound up as a political party within a fortnight after a judge ordered it to pay a crippling £175,000 bill in legal costs for libelling three Labour MPs.
The pro-Brexit party is now facing bankruptcy in the wake of the ruling by Mr Justice Warby on Monday that it had to pay the bill within two weeks.
UKIP MEP Jane Collins falsely accused Labour’s three Rotherham MPs of covering up the town’s sex abuse scandal before the last election.
Sir Kevin Barron, John Healey and Sarah Champion sued for libel over Collins’ speech to a UKIP conference, which came a month after a report found about 1,400 children in the area had been abused between 1997 and 2013.
Collins has already been ordered to personally pay damages of £54,000 to each of the MPs.
The party is already reeling from a succession of failed leaders since Nigel Farage, saw its vote collapse in the 2017 election and is struggling to attract any donors to keep afloat.
It is currently run by interim leader Gerard Batten after former leader Henry Bolton was ousted by members following his links to a girlfriend who sent racist texts about Prince Harry’s fiancee Meghan Markle.
Although UKIP was not deemed responsible for Collins’ remarks, the High Court ruled last month that the party taken an “deliberate” decision not to settle the case before the 2017 general election.
And on Monday, Mr Justice Warby awarded costs – separately from the damages bill – of £175,000 to the three Labour MPs.
At an event in the party’s former heartland of Essex on Monday, current interim leader Batten conceded that UKIP may be “finished” unless it can find the cash.
“If we cannot raise it then the future of the party itself is in question,” he said.
Mary Newton, chairman of the Clacton branch of the party, told her local paper: “Mr Batten said we need to raise £100,000 in two weeks or that could be it. Mr Batten was just being honest and open with us about the situation.”
In a joint statement, Barron, Healey and Champion said: “UKIP’s actions behind the scenes forced the costs of this case to soar and compounded the damage from Jane Collins’ unfounded and hurtful allegations.
“This deliberate strategy hugely increased the legal costs and it is right that UKIP are today held liable for a large share of these costs.
“UKIP used the unfounded allegations by Jane Collins for political advantage.
“At the highest level UKIP knew Jane Collins’ case was ‘hopeless’ but blocked any settlement in our favour before the 2015 General Election because they believed it would win them votes.”