This month, our award for the person who’s made public life just that little bit worse goes to an old friend of the site…
UKIP winning in Stoke Central will be game, set and match for Brexit.
It’s a tough gig, taking over a job from someone who’s been doing it for so long that they seem part of the fixtures and fittings. Just ask David Moyes about his time at Manchester United, or Peter Sissons about Question Time, or Michael Parkinson about Desert Island Discs.
The task of following on from Nigel Farage as leader of UKIP isn’t quite in the same class, but it’s still not easy. Both Baron Pearson of Rannoch and Diane James tried it – in 2009 and 2016 respectively – and neither was a conspicuous success. On both occasions, Farage felt obliged to return to the bridge in an attempt to steady the ship.
And now Paul Nuttall is leader. And what a pig’s ear he’s making of it, as well.
His first big outing came this month in the Stoke Central by-election, a gift of an opportunity with multiple factors in his favour.
First, the incumbent Labour MP had resigned – just eighteen months after he’d been elected – because he’d had a better offer elsewhere. The electorate don’t much approve of this sort of thing. In 1977, Labour lost both Birmingham Stechford and Ashfield when Roy Jenkins and David Marquand took better-paid jobs in Europe, and the voters were similarly unforgiving in 1988 when Bruce Millan did the same in Glasgow Govan.
Second, Stoke Central had the lowest turnout in the 2015 general election; Tristram Hunt won with the support of just 19.6 per cent of the registered electorate. If UKIP was going to fulfil Nuttall’s promise to take over in Labour’s heartlands, there were plenty of potential voters to play for.
Third, Stoke had voted overwhelmingly in favour of Leave in the referendum last year. Hostility to the EU can be assumed to be a big issue in the city. So too is immigration. In the 2005 and 2010 elections, the BNP candidates kept their deposits, recording over 2,000 votes on each occasion. In 2015 the BNP didn’t field a candidate, helping UKIP to leapfrog both the LibDems and the Tories and come in second, just 5,000 votes behind Hunt.
And finally, the status of Labour nationally is as low as any of us can remember and appears to be in freefall. Jeremy Corbyn is not the only source of the party’s travails, but he has made them much, much worse.
Into this dream scenario came Nuttall, perhaps the only member of UKIP outside Farage himself to have any sort of public profile. Winning here was not only achievable; it was expected.
Instead, he screwed it up royally. He held onto second place and, er, that’s it. In 2015 the party got 22.7 per cent of the vote; Nuttall pushed this all the way up to 24.3 per cent. It was a miserable result, thrown into stark relief by the way that the Conservatives took Copeland from Labour on the same day.
Perhaps prompted by an L&U piece arguing that ‘the far-right figures who’ve made any headway among the working class are a pretty posh lot’, Nuttall arrived in the constituency wearing a matching topcoat-and-cap combo that only the late Sir Alec Douglas Home (or possibly Chris Eubank) could have carried off.
Elsewhere, our heavy hints that there was something amiss in his account of being at Hillsborough in 1989 were followed up by news outlets with better resources and better lawyers than we have at our disposal.
And so Nuttall became the story of the campaign for all the wrong reasons. What should have been an opportunity to re-launch UKIP in the post-referendum era failed entirely to get off the ground. What does the party stand for? No one knows, except that it doesn’t like immigration or foreign aid. Meanwhile, the less-than-delightful Arron Banks appears to be gaining in influence and profile.
This award was intended to recognize those who’ve been over-exposed and useless over the last month. In this instance, we’re varying it a little to acknowledge Nuttall’s unnaturally low profile during the campaign: he didn’t turn up to hustings, he gave vanishingly few interviews, and his website was taken down (this was said to be for ‘scheduled maintenance’, an excuse that even Southern Rail would have baulked at).
When he did show up, it was to say that he’d support the use of waterboarding on terror suspects (albeit ‘through gritted teeth’), to call those who doubted his account of Hillsborough ‘scum of the earth’, and to cry when addressing his party’s spring conference.
As UKIP leader, Nigel Farage was seen by some as a bar-room buffoon, by others as a dangerous demagogue. But no serious commentator could doubt his effectiveness or his ability to communicate. He proved to be an impressive political operator, however many unsuccessful attempts he made to get into Parliament. On the back of Stoke Central, by contrast, Paul Nuttall has somehow succeeded in doing further damage to the UKIP brand. He came across as a plonker in a pseudo-Peaky Blinders cap.
Going back to those others who’ve tried to replace Farage in the past, Baron Pearson lasted all of ten months, and Diane James a mere eighteen days. Twelve weeks into his leadership, Nuttall has at least outlasted the latter; it remains to be seen whether he can do better than the former, or whether the call is going to go out for yet another return by Farage.