- UKIP leader Paul Nuttall was the favourite to claim the Stoke-on-Trent seat from Labour.
- Claims that he lost “close personal friends” in the Hillsborough incident were found to be false.
- The misleading claims are now believed to have cost UKIP support from locals.
- Senior UKIP figures in Bolton were reluctant to talk about a defeat in Stoke during the UKIP conference but did not offer much fighting talk, either.
LONDON — As UKIP leader Paul Nuttall took to the stage at the party’s conference in Bolton on Friday afternoon the Lightning Seeds’ 1990s hit “Marvellous” blared through the speakers.
Met by a standing ovation from 400-plus party members and with a beaming smile on his face, Nuttall certainly had the look of a man who had enjoyed a marvellous week.
But, in reality, the Liverpudlian had endured the opposite.
The false claim on his website that he lost personal friends in the Hillsborough disaster had dealt a blow to his hopes of winning the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election and followed him around like a bad smell at the Macron stadium, where the conference took place.
The Stoke hopeful was so keen to avoid questions about the claim that he vanished as soon as his morning speech had come to an end and was nowhere to be seen until showing up at the bar adjacent to the venue later in the evening.
His team refused to give clues about his whereabouts during his brief time in hiding, despite enquiries from Business Insider and other journalists. It was markedly different behaviour from Nuttall, whose approach to the media had up until recently been confident and cooperative. This was not the upbeat Merseysider that we had gotten so used to.
‘It’s going to be tough’
Nuttall took to the stage on Friday with less than a week until the crucial by-election in Stoke. The UKIP leader has vowed to defeat Labour in the midlands seat that has been controlled by the latter for nearly seven decades.
He was tipped to wrestle the constituency from Labour’s grasp by bookmakers but since news of the false Hillsborough claim has been overtaken by Labour candidate Gareth Snell. He appears to be losing momentum and a crucial time.
Senior UKIP figures in Bolton were reluctant to talk about a defeat in Stoke but did not offer much fighting talk, either.
“Tough” was one senior party figure’s response when asked to access the party’s chances of dethroning Labour. “It’s going to be tough — but it is still winnable,” another said.
The consensus among those in Lancashire on Friday was that the battle in Stoke is far from over but UKIP’s chances had taken a significant hit as a result of the Hillsborough story.
Senior figures were angry with how certain sections of the press had treated Nuttall over the false claim. One accused national reporters of door knocking the UKIP leader’s severely ill father and elderly relatives. Former leadership candidate Suzanne Evans accused the BBC of being too hard on Nuttall while failing to hold Snell to account for his archive of misogynistic tweets. “Pretty hypocritical really,” she told us.
Sources told Business Insider that Nuttall’s misleading statement has riled many people in Stoke, with a distrust in politicians already a prevailing mood in the area. UKIP campaigners have been interrogated about the claim on doorsteps and people who had initially intended to vote for Nuttall have abandoned him over the gross inaccuracy.
UKIP continued to stress, though, that the blow to Nuttall’s campaign was not a fatal one.
A figure close to the UKIP leadership claimed that Labour had shifted most of its resources to Stoke in a clear indication that Nuttall remained a serious threat to Jeremy Corbyn’s waning party. Evans added that UKIP was “just ahead” of Labour and would likely benefit from apathy among locals who voted for Labour at the last general election.
A source close to Labour’s campaign in Stoke told Business Insider last week that the party estimates it could defeat UKIP with a winning margin of up to 5,000 votes. Nuttall’s team outright rejected this figure.
Nuttall under huge pressure
If the UKIP leader was not already feeling under big pressure to deliver a victory then the comments made at the conference by his predecessor Nigel Farage would probably have done the trick.
“I don’t think anybody for one moment can underplay just how important and absolutely fundamental that by-election is for the futures of both the Labour Party and indeed UKIP,” Farage told the conference on Friday.
“It matters and it matters hugely.”
This felt like a curious thing to hear from a politician who has stood unsuccessfully to be an MP seven times, but nonetheless revealed just how much weight is on Nuttall’s shoulders to deliver a momentous victory on Thursday.
Farage’s resignation as UKIP leader marked the end of an era. Britain had voted to leave the European Union. The UK Independence Party had achieved its existential purpose. Now it’s challenge is to serve a new purpose: to be a party of Parliament. If Nuttall is elected an MP on Thursday then ‘Marvellous’ will be a perfectly apt choice of song.
This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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