LONDON — When UKIP comes together for its spring conference in Bolton this weekend the mood will be mixed.
After winning the EU referendum and electing a leader who seemed ready to take on Labour in their Northern heartlands, this was meant to be a jubilant affair.
However, when Paul Nuttall addresses his party on Friday he will do so as a leader in crisis, after a series of damaging stories emerged about him and his party.
The UKIP leader is at the eye of a national storm after admitting that he didn’t actually lose close friends in the Hillsborough tragedy, despite his official website claiming he did. The news has been like a boot to the stomach for Nuttall’s campaign and dealt serious damage to his personal reputation. Locals in Stoke-on-Trent Central where Nuttall hopes to win a seat from Labour, have been very keen interrogate his team about the revelations on doorsteps this week, the Guardian’s Jessica Elgot reports.
While just a few weeks ago many commentators rated Nuttall as the favourite to win in Stoke, an area described by Nuttall as “the capital of Brexit,” his chances now appear to be slipping away.
At one stage, Nuttall was the bookies’ favourite to become UKIP’s second elected MP. His odds have now plummeted to just over 30%, according to the Betfair betting exchange, and are still falling. William Hill is now offering 7/4 on Nuttall standing down if he loses Stoke. He told Business Insider last month that he intends to remain leader if he loses the by-election next Thursday — but that was before the Hillsborough revelations.
Nuttall’s campaign now risks falling apart around him and he doesn’t have long to pick up the pieces.
New leader, same old problems
Nuttall’s election was supposed to be the beginning of a new era for UKIP.
He took over from interim leader Nigel Farage as the party sought to recover from months of soap opera and vicious in-fighting. Diane James was initially elected to replace Farage in September but resigned after just 19 days. Steven Woolfe, the prodigy who was dubbed to replace James and steer UKIP to calmer waters, quit the party after being hospitalised following a row with a colleague. Speaking after his election, Nuttall declared it was time for the party to “come together” and leave its chaotic past behind.
It hasn’t worked out that way.
Nuttall’s personal reputation isn’t the only issue. The Huffington Post reports that Farage has refused to do any more campaigning for his successor after learning that Lisa Duffy — a former leadership candidate who has made a serious of allegations relating to Farage’s personal life — has been heavily involved in the Stoke campaign. Farage told Nuttall that his campaign team wasn’t professional enough and will take no further part in the race.
The effectiveness of UKIP’s electoral strategy has long been an issue. The party has strong, colourful personalities like Farage and Nuttall but has struggled to come anywhere close to matching Labour, the Tories, and even the Liberal Democrats when it comes to organising an effective campaign.
Be careful what you wish for
The party has so-far failed to cash-in electorally from it’s referendum triumph. While the pro-EU Liberal Democrats are surging in both Parliamentary and council by-elections, UKIP has been deprived of such success, with senior party figures left scratching their heads over how they can finally breakthrough and become a real force in Westminster.
Ironically Brexit, which was the founding purpose of the party, appears to be depriving UKIP of a future role. As Oscar Wilde once wrote: “There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.”
The challenge for Nuttall as he heads to Bolton is to find a way of turning that around.