‘Plainly nuts’: A press portrait of Paul Nuttall

In many ways, I am pro-European. I have lived in Barcelona and Brussels. I just don’t like the EU. [1]

Paul Nuttall, 2008

It’s one of the great political debates of our times. Who does Paul Nuttall of UKIP most closely resemble? Is it Eddie Hitler from Bottom? Or is it Benito Mussolini from, well from Italy? And then, almost by way of afterthought, how seriously should we take him anyway?


Paul Andrew Nuttall was born in Bootle on Merseyside in 1976, and was educated at Savio High School and Hugh Baird College, before studying history at Edge Hill. He was awarded an MA from Liverpool Hope University and, following some time working in Barcelona, he went on to teach history at Hugh Baird and at Liverpool Hope, though he never completed the PhD that he started.

Alongside the study of history, there was an interest in sport. He played in goal in Tranmere Rovers youth team, and studied for a Diploma in sports science. He is also a Liverpool supporter, and in 2010 he revealed that he had been in the Leppings Lane end at Hillsborough. (This, at least, is the earliest reference I can find to him talking about the Hillsborough tragedy; impressively, perhaps surprisingly, he doesn’t seem to have exploited it for political advantage.) [2]

He joined the Conservative Party in his youth, but left in 2004, disagreeing with its position on the Europe Union, and joined UKIP instead. The following year, having set up the South Sefton branch of the party, he stood as a candidate in Bootle.

It wasn’t a hopeful campaign. UKIP had never stood before in Bootle, and in 1997 the Referendum Party candidate had garnered just 1.5 per cent of the vote in what was then Labour’s safest seat in the country. In the 2005 general election, Nuttall improved a little on that, but he still lost his deposit, coming in fourth with 4.1 per cent.

He did rather better in his attempts to represent the Derby ward on Sefton Borough Council, however: there he got 21 per cent of the vote in 2006, increasing this to 38 per cent in 2008, coming second on both occasions. [3]

During this time, he made sure he kept his name prominent in the area, as an indefatigable writer of letters to the local newspapers, exploring many of the political positions that were later to form his platform for the party leadership.

He called for the restoration of the death penalty, the return of ‘old-fashioned park-keepers’, [4] and the removal of CCTV cameras: ‘Policemen on the street deter and re-assure – not Big Brother surveillance cameras.’ [5] He was against ID cards (‘expensive, intrusive and quite simply unworkable’), [6] the proliferation of managers in the NHS, [7] and the privatization of the Royal Mail, saying of the latter that it ‘used to be a state monopoly that actually turned in a profit’, until EU directives ‘allowed the most profitable parts to be cherry-picked by competitors’. [8]

UKIP was not over-blessed with able young activists and Nuttall was clearly seen as a future high-flyer. In 2008 he got a job as political advisor to the Independence/Democracy group in the European Parliament (the group to which UKIP then belonged) and the same year, at the age of just 31, he was appointed chairman of the party. His elevation, he declared, represented ‘a clear break with the past’. [9]

He was also selected as UKIP’s top candidate in the list for the North West region for the next European Parliament elections, to be held in 2009.

That was UKIP’s breakout year, when Nigel Farage led the party to its most impressive electoral performance yet, coming second to David Cameron’s Conservatives with 16.5 per cent of the national vote. (It’s perhaps worth mentioning that there was a very low turnout that year, and UKIP’s tally of 2.5 million votes was actually down on the previous Euro-poll.)

Among the beneficiaries of the 2009 success was Nuttall, elected as an MEP for the North West, alongside two Tories, two Liberal Democrats, two Labour and Nick Griffin of the British National Party.

The latter party was also enjoying its biggest electoral success, with a shade under a million votes, and many commentators were quick to link the rise of UKIP and the BNP as two sides of a far-right backlash. Nuttall was naturally anxious to disabuse such people.

‘We have got nothing in common with the BNP,’ he insisted. ‘Yes, we do want to control immigration, but the issue is about space, not race like the BNP.’ [10] The rhetoric, however, was not entirely dissimilar; he talked about ‘the hordes descending on these shores to take advantage of our overgenerous benefits system’, and about ‘serious criminals, who are wanted back home to face justice but whom we can’t, or won’t, deport.’ [11]

And when Kentucky Fried Chicken announced that it was considering a move towards the use of halal meat, he took the opportunity to spell out his rejection of contemporary Britain: ‘It is a testament to the divisions wrought on this country by the failed creed of multiculturalism that KFC feel the need to do this,’ he declared. [12]

In September 2009, Farage announced (for the first time) that he was stepping down as UKIP leader, in order to have a serious go at a Westminster seat, and Nuttall’s was one of the names touted as a possible successor. He said there was a 50:50 chance that he would stand for the leadership, though in the event he chose not to, perhaps heeding the cautionary note struck by Farage. ‘He could be a good contender for stepping into my shoes,’ said the outgoing leader, ‘although I’m not sure yet whether at 32 he is ready.’ [13]

Not everyone, though, was so impressed by his conduct. The same month saw Marta Andreasen, formerly the chief accountant of the European Commission, resign as UKIP’s treasurer, singling Nuttall out as a key reason for her departure. He insisted that it was nothing to do with him: ‘Marta and I have different methods of working,’ he admitted, ‘however I do not have a problem with Marta and Marta does not have a problem with me.’ She was less conciliatory: ‘I resigned because I disagree with how the party is being managed at the level of the chairmanship. I do not want to see funds being wasted, and the management of this party needs to wake up.’ [14]

Andreasen was UKIP’s most credible recruit since Robert Kilroy-Silk, and her departure from centre stage was regrettable. Nuttall ploughed on regardless. Having graduated from the local press, he was by now becoming a reliable rent-a-quote resource for national-newspaper journalists covering the alleged barminess of Brussels.

An EU criticism of Britain for not outlawing the corporal punishment of children? ‘It is outrageous that such a personal parental decision should be taken away on the whim on European bureaucrats.’ [15] A proposal to ban PVC in electrical items, a move that the News of the World warned would threaten the nation’s vibrators? ‘Taking PVC out of electrical goods would cost millions. And cost the bedrooms of Britain a lot of fun.’ [16] Retailers being forced to sell eggs by weight rather than number? ‘They are bonkers. When the French stop selling their wine by the case we’ll be happy to stop selling eggs by the dozen.’ [17]

When, however, FIFA voted against staging the 2018 World Cup in England, he was quick to say that, as a member of the European Parliament’s culture, media and sport committee, he had ‘written to the head of FIFA, Sepp Blatter, to ask him on what basis were these decisions taken’. [18] Why he thought it appropriate for the EU to intervene in the decisions made by an independent sporting body, he failed to elucidate.

To be fair, though, he was not often to be found using or abusing his position as an MEP. Indeed he was seldom to be found anywhere near his supposed place of work. When the Independent analysed the performance of Britain’s representatives at the European Parliament, Farage and Nuttall were found to have had ‘the worst attendance ratings of any UK politician in Brussels but still managed to cost the taxpayer over £600,000 each in salary and allowances’. [19]

In the 2010 general election, he was again selected for the Bootle constituency and found himself being talked up by the local media. ‘Paul Nuttall will be a serious contender,’ observed the Liverpool Echo. ‘Certainly, it is possible that the so-called “fringe” party may push one of the other two of the big three – the Tories and Liberal Democrats – further down the electoral pecking order.’ [20]

In the event, he did little better than he had in 2005. His share of the vote rose, but only to 6.1 per cent, and he was still in fourth place. He also went on to contest the 2011 Oldham East & Saddleworth by-election (called following the disgrace of Phil Woolas), and again he underperformed, winning just 5.8 per cent, though he did push the BNP into fifth place.

Meanwhile, his progress in the party continued. In November 2010, Farage, having failed (again) to win a parliamentary seat, returned as leader of UKIP, and immediately appointed Nuttall as deputy leader.

His public profile was boosted by his continuing appearances in the media, particularly in the Express, which had adopted UKIP’s cause and was more than happy to report Nuttall’s denunciations of EU red tape. Stringent safety requirements for children’s toys? ‘These idiots in Brussels seem to have a death wish. The euro is falling apart, but what do they concentrate on? Throwing our toys out of their pram.’ [21]

As that phrasing indicated, he was learning the art of the tabloid soundbite, as deployed to great effect by Farage. Britain was giving foreign aid to Brazil? It was ‘plainly nuts’. [22] The BBC received grants from the EU to develop the World Service? That’s because it was ‘the Brussels Broadcasting Corporation’. [23] An EU directive on reducing solvents in paint? ‘While trying to portray itself as whiter than white on matters of public health, the EU has ended up instead painting the consumer into a corner.’ [24]

And so it went on. And on. A relentless series of wannabe gags aimed at the nanny superstate.

He also tried to emulate his leader’s boggle-eyed denunciation of every EU initiative as the craziest thing he’d ever heard: ‘I had to read this four or five times before I believed it,’ he’d ejaculate. ‘It is a perfect example of what the EU does best and makes the bendy banana law look positively sane.’ [25]

It didn’t always work. Told that there was a research project into the viability of ‘the public riding in helicopter-style Personal Aerial Vehicles for the daily commute or shopping trip’, he spluttered: ‘You really couldn’t make it up.’ [26] Which suggested that he had yet to encounter much science fiction.

The problem with this approach, though, even if it did get him in the papers, was that every statement had to denounce the EU, which meant that it was hard sometimes to see quite what his own arguments were.

‘The UK Independence Party does not deny that the climate is changing,’ he’d declare. ‘We just question whether EU legislation, which will add to the cost of our fuel bills, increase the price of food and scar our landscape with useless wind turbines, is actually the right path to follow.’ [27] So did he accept that there was such a thing as anthropogenic climate change or not? And if he did, did he believe something should be done about it? We were none the wiser.

Similarly he railed against the EU regulations on recycling, plastic carrier bags and energy-saving lightbulbs, while still protesting that he was as concerned as the next man to protect the environment. (Of course, in this instance, the next man may well have been Nigel Farage.)

And when Paul McCartney suggested that meat-eaters should go vegetarian one day a week in order to cut some of the greenhouse gases caused by cattle-farming, Nuttall was quick out of the blocks with a press release: ‘Maybe it is healthier, but that should be their choice and not because a pop star thinks farting cows and pigs herald the end of mankind.’ [28]

With Nuttall as the sorcerer’s apprentice, helping Farage to keep the pot boiling, the rise of UKIP continued, sowing seeds of confusion in Conservative Party ranks. It gained greatly from David Cameron’s espousal of same-sex marriage, which provoked many to leave the Tories to join the one party that resolutely set its face against this faddishness. ‘UKIP has strongly opposed gay marriage, continues to oppose gay marriage and, when the new legislation takes full effect, will continue to oppose gay marriage,’ Nuttall explained. [29]

Farage remained the frontman – ‘the best communicator in British politics,’ as Nuttall referred to him – but increasingly his deputy was being promoted in the media as the alternative face, the man who was seen ‘as key in showing that the party can attract votes from disgruntled Labour supporters in the North as well as angry Tories in the South’. [30]

At the 2013 UKIP conference, following a good set of local election results that year, Nuttall was given three separate opportunities to address the faithful. And he had by now a high enough profile to warrant a special place in comedian Stewart Lee’s routine: as Paul Nuttalls of the UKIPs. Praise indeed.


There followed the two big electoral triumphs.

In 2014 UKIP came top of the polls in the elections to the European Parliament, with 4.4 million votes, an impressive 26.6 per cent of those who voted.

And in 2015, it enjoyed its best-ever Westminster election result, coming third in the popular vote (3.9 million, 12.7 per cent), even if this produced the paltry total of just one MP. (Meanwhile the Scottish National Party got 56 MPs with just 4.7 per cent of the vote.)

Nuttall’s fortunes were as mixed as ever. He retained his seat in the European Parliament, but failed once more in the general election. He again stood for the Bootle constituency and benefitted suficiently from the Liberal Democrat collapse to come second, though he got just 10.9 per cent of the vote, leaving the new Labour MP, Peter Dowd, with a massive 63.6 point majority.

The aftermath of that 2015 poll saw UKIP engage in its traditional leadership farce. Farage resigned for a second time, and then, a couple of days later, unresigned. One of the party’s main donors, Stuart Wheeler, said he ought to stay resigned – ‘I personally would prefer someone else now’ [31] – and Farage admitted on Question Time that he had lost the support of his party ‘big time’.

The two frontrunners for his job, it was generally agreed were deputy chairman Suzanne Evans and Paul Nuttall. ‘A working-class Liverpudlian from a Labour-supporting family,’ a Times editorial noted of the latter, ‘he could connect with blue-collar voters at Labour’s expense in areas of Britain so far unswayed by Mr Farage’s charms.’ [32]

At stake, of course, was the leadership of the party going into the biggest vote of all: the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU that David Cameron had been panicked into promising. This was UKIP’s entire raison d’etre (as they didn’t like to say), and many felt that Farage was too divisive a figure to play a leading role in the Leave campaign.

But this was UKIP, where normal party rules didn’t apply. Despite a bout of infighting that was both vicious and ridiculous, Farage clung on. And Nuttall remained loyal to his leader, right through to the triumph of the referendum victory. In the process he became leader of the party in the European Parliament, while still remaining deputy leader of the party overall.

All of which left him perfectly placed to step in when, in the wake of the Brexit vote, Farage announced a third retirement as leader. Nuttall’s case was strengthened further by Jeremy Corbyn’s maladroit leadership of the Labour Party. Surely, it was argued, there were legions of working-class Labour voters – alienated by the abstemious vegetarian from Islington – who were crying out for a party led by an ordinary bloke who was inclined to the left in economics and firmly to the right on social issues.

‘UKIP has no time for political correctness or just pleasing the chattering classes and media-luvvies like the LibLabCon,’ Nuttall declared. ‘We are the party advocating no income tax for those on the minimum wage and the building up of a strong vocational education system to help those young people looking for a job.’ [33]

If there was to be a future for UKIP, then it must lie in the workingmen’s pubs of the north-west, rather than the golf clubs of the south-east, and Nuttall was the early favourite at the bookies to be the next leader.

To the surprise of everyone who was paying attention, however, he announced that not only was he not going for the leadership, but he was also giving up his position as deputy leader.

Why he didn’t stand in that leadership contest in September remains unexplained. But, happily, this was UKIP, where normal party rules still didn’t apply, and there was another election coming just round the corner.

In a field denuded of big names, Diane James was chosen as Farage’s successor on 16 September 2016. On 4 October, just eighteen days later, she stepped down, sparking the serious race to be the one who reshapes UKIP. As Farage once more took up the reins of power – this time on a strictly temporary basis – Nuttall was again swiftly installed as the bookies’ favourite to beat the other major candidate, Suzanne Evans. (She also hadn’t stood in September, but she at least had the reasonable excuse of having been suspended from the party at the time.)

And on 28 November 2016, the man mocked on Merseyside as a ‘Bad Bootle Ukip Meff’* was duly announced as the new leader of the party, taking 63 per cent of the vote, more than three times the support enjoyed by his nearest rival.


So, to return to the earlier question: how seriously should we take Paul Nuttall?

He’s far from stupid, though perhaps not quite so far as he believes. His grasp of history is sometimes a little too coloured by his own agenda: British soldiers who fell in the First World War, he explained, ‘died to protect our independence from Europe’. [34] But, when he goes beyond the simplistic soundbites, his analysis is sharp enough.

He has been clear for some time on the need for UKIP to reposition itself. As he explained before the last general election:

Labour has lost five million traditional supporters since Tony Blair’s New Labour experiment, which has seen the party hijacked by a Liberal Metropolitan middle-class agenda and they have been left disowned. Many actually have Conservative social values. These are the people affected most by mass immigration because these are the people whose communities have been turned upside down. Our policies resonate with them. They are the most likely to be affected by crime and this is where our zero-tolerance approach, and our objection to the Human Rights Act, go down so well. At the moment we have education by wealth and not ability, because all social mobility has stagnated. [35]

Since then, further opportunities have opened up. ‘There is definitely a future for a patriotic voice of the working class, and people aren’t getting that from Labour under Corbyn,’ he says. ‘If UKIP wants to make real gains then it’s quite obvious they will come from working class communities.’ [36]

This is probably true, though the question remains of whether he is the man to realize the ambition. The experience thus far is that the far-right figures who’ve made any headway among the working class are a pretty posh lot, from the baronet Sir Oswald Mosley, through the professor of classics Enoch Powell, to the son-of-a-stockbroker Nigel Farage. Even Nick Griffin of the BNP was a privately educated Cambridge graduate. (Another history student, as it happens – I don’t know what they’re teaching in universities these days.) There may yet turn out to be a demand for a right-wing leader who looks and sounds working-class, but there’s no British precedent for it.

In fact, in normal times, one wouldn’t give Nuttall much chance of making an impact. But these aren’t normal times, and Labour isn’t led by a normal leader.

He cites as his political hero Joseph Chamberlain, the radical outsider who reshaped British politics around the turn of the twentieth century. ‘He smashed the Liberals, and he smashed the Tories over free trade and protectionism.’ Better yet: ‘He had style as well.’ This goes down well with Nuttall, who himself likes a bit of flamboyance. [37]

But maybe there’s the rub. He might claim a collection of more than 300 ties**, but there remains for Paul Nuttall a bit of an image problem. Put simply, it’s not always possible to take someone seriously who looks like Eddie Hitler. Or even Mussolini.

* My thanks to Jamie Bowman for this information.

** This figure dates from 2008; it may since have risen.

As with all the portraits in this series, this piece is drawn almost entirely from contemporary newspaper accounts. It is liable, therefore, to be wildly inaccurate.


[1] Daily Post 30 December 2008

[2] Liverpool Echo 5 July 2010

[3] Daily Post 30 December 2008

[4] Daily Post 15 September 2008

[5] Daily Post 29 September 2008

[6] Daily Post 20 November 2008

[7] Liverpool Echo 1 February 2010

[8] Daily Post 22 May 2008

[9] Daily Post 8 September 2008

[10] Daily Post 30 December 2008

[11] Daily Post 4 February 2009

[12] Express 25 March 2010

[13] Daily Post 7 September 2009

[14] Times 8 September 2009

[15] Wigan Observer 30 April 2010

[16] News of the World 13 June 2010

[17] Express 28 June 2010

[18] Wigan Observer 8 December 2010

[19] Independent 22 May 2014

[20] Liverpool Echo 14 April 2010

[21] Express 10 October 2011

[22] Manchester Evening News 3 January 2012

[23] Express 3 February 2012

[24] Express 6 April 2012

[25] Express 18 November 2011

[26] Express 5 August 2011

[27] Daily Post 25 February 2009

[28] Independent 19 November 2009

[29] News Letter 1 April 2014

[30] Times 4 May 2013

[31] Times 15 May 2015

[32] Times 16 May 2016

[33] Huffington Post 7 March 2013

[34] Express on Sunday 11 May 2014

[35] Daily Telegraph 28 October 2010

[36] Liverpool Echo 13 October 2016

[37] Daily Post 30 December 2008


One thought on “‘Plainly nuts’: A press portrait of Paul Nuttall

  1. Enjoyed the first few minutes of the clip of Stewart Lee, though not for the reason he would want and I soon got bored by the predictability. His implication that Liverpool and London exist in foreign countries and his concern that his standard of living should be subsidised by underpaid immigrants explains why UKIP are making such inroads in Labour seats in the North.

    I can only presume that when he does buy a coffee in a coffee bar in London, he assumes that the staff serving him are less well educated than him and are not, as many are, better educated and only doing this work because their language skills dictate that they start with menial work after being driven to the UK by the failings of EMU.

    Lee also does not reflect on comedians being largely immune to the threat of immigrants taking their jobs. He might then have more consideration for those whose wages have been driven down. One of the benefits of having the referendum debate is that toff socialists like Lee finally express their true feelings about the British working class and their desire to replace it with immigrants.


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