An MEP hoping to succeed Nigel Farage as Ukip leader has claimed the party is being "held back" by its long-term Eurosceptic stance. Bill Etheridge, who represents the West Midlands in the European Parliament, told IBTimes UK that the Brexit result of the EU referendum would allow Ukip to start concentrating on other issues.

"I am so relieved that we can start putting the EU issue behind us," the 46-year-old said. "The EU issue itself has held us back as a party from our proper destiny and development. We can now focus on domestic politics and be a real alternative. I never joined Ukip because of the EU, leaving the EU was simply one step along the way to being able to change our country."

Etheridge stressed that it would be impossible to abolish VAT if the UK remains in the 28-nation-bloc. The self-described "complete underdog" in the Ukip leadership race wants to replace the levy with a local sales tax in a bid to simplify the system.

The Dudley councillor has also unveiled a "three strikes and you're out" crime policy, which would see violent criminals receive a life sentence on their third conviction.

Like leadership favourite Steven Woolfe, who Etheridge praised as an "extremely effective communicator", the MEP wants Ukip to target Labour's traditional homelands in the Midlands and North of England.

"I believe the working class are no longer represented by the Labour Party, they are as remote from it as we are from Jupiter. People still vote for them because they feel it's the option for the working class," Etheridge declared.

"We have a task to make them understand that Ukip is the realist common sense alternative for the working class. We are not going to be high-bound by ideology but we are going to put ideas on the centre-right."

As for immigration, an issue that helped Ukip attract more than 3.8 million votes at the general election, the leadership contender revealed he does not want an arbitrary net migration cap like David Cameron's now infamous "tens of thousands" pledge.

"The situation changes on a yearly basis on how many people we need to come into the country. I want us to be able to control it, but not necessarily in a punitive way.

"With mass youth unemployment, there's very little argument to allow people to come in and do unskilled labour. But if we need skills to come into the country, I don't believe in capping it. It's a rather simplistic way of approaching things. I just want us to have a sensible control over the quantity and quality of people coming in [to the UK]."

Etheridge described an Australian-style points system as a "settled way of looking at it." He added: "Yeah, not far from that."

Golliwog and Hitler controversies

But the Wolverhampton-born politician is not without controversy. In 2011, as a Conservative Party member, he posed alongside a golliwog toy on Facebook in a stunt designed to "provoke a political correctness debate". Etheridge resigned from the party amid the ensuing scandal, but has continued to deny the picture was a mistake.

"All it was about was highlighting the fact that over a period of time our perception of certain items and words has changed because of political correctness," he argued.

"It doesn't mean for a second that I want to offend anyone and it certainly doesn't mean that they are a good thing to promote, it was simply part of a dialogue and discourse on political correctness. I've said many a time that if anybody felt personally offended by that I would be extremely apologetic to them personally, but I don't apologise for having a debate about stuff."

'I wish Hitler had never been born, but unfortunately he was good at persuading people to his point of view at a period of time.'

Bill Etheridge

Etheridge hit the headlines three years later in 2014 after he reportedly praised Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's speaking skills as "magnetic and forceful".

The MEP, who stressed he was addressing a public speaking seminar at the time, said: "To say someone is a good public speaker doesn't necessarily mean you agree with what they are saying. I wish Hitler had never been born, but unfortunately he was good at persuading people to his point of view at a period of time."

Etheridge is currently up against Woolfe and fellow Ukip MEP Jonathan Arnott in the party's leadership contest, with deputy leader Paul Nuttall ruling himself out of the race. Nominations are open and will close on 31 July, with Farage's successor announced on 15 September.