UKIP’s leader has denied he is taking the party to the far-right, despite saying he has some sympathy with English Defence League frontman Tommy Robinson.

Gerard Batten’s comments came after he was warned by Nigel Farage that Ukip would face “total and utter marginalisation” if it moves to the extremes of politics.

The comments came as the party kicked off its annual conference in Birmingham.

It’s been an odd two years for Ukip, who were all but written off as dead in 2016 as they lurched from leadership contest to leadership contest. Batten is the party’s fourth boss in two years.

Much of the party’s vote seemed to go to the Tories at last year’s snap General Election.

But over the summer Batten has welcomed in some of the influential internet stars of the alt-right.

Paul Joseph Watson, of the Infowars conspiracy website; Mark Meechan, also known as Count Dankula, convicted for training his dog to give a Nazi salute; and Milo Yiannopoulos, a polemicist, have all joined the party.

What they share in common is a belief that free speech is under attack.

Youth membership rose by half between May and early July, though, reportedly, only to around 1200.

Speaking ahead of the conference, Farage said he was “upset” at the company the new leader keeps.

Batten criticised Farage. He told Sky News: “Nigel is friends with Donald Trump, who a lot of people like to call names. Nigel has gone to speak on platforms with Alternative fur Deutschland, who a lot of people don’t like and call names.

“He is entitled to do that, because they are democratic parties, and I am entitled to speak at rallies organised by people who believe in democracy. I think maybe he should be a little bit more careful about criticising me, because he has done similar things.”

He added that Robinson would not be admitted to Ukip “in the near future” because it would require changes to the party’s rules.

But he added: “That’s something I would personally approve of, but it’s a matter for the party, it’s their decision, not mine ... I don’t happen to think that Tommy Robinson is far-right.”

Batten denied his leadership was a rightward step for the party: “For the last 25 years, myself and everyone else in Ukip has worked to restore our country’s former status as an independent democratic nation that is governed by our politicians, elected by us, sackable by us, in accordance with our traditional laws and customs and constitution.”

Meanwhile, the disgraced former Tory minister Neil Hamilton used his speech at the conference in Blackpool to compare Theresa May to those who appeased Hitler before the Second World War.

Hamilton, who now leads Ukip in Wales, said the Tories had “chosen the path of Neville Chamberlain” over Brexit.