UKIP faces coming third in Stoke as voters turn on Nuttall for his 'toxic' Hillsborough claim

Paul Nuttall placard defaced in StokeChristopher Furlong / GettyPaul Nuttall placard defaced in Stoke

LONDON — UKIP could be set to finish third in the upcoming by-election in Stoke-on-Trent Central, having initially been odds on to wrestle the seat from Labour’s grasp.

Conservative campaigners on the ground in the Leave-voting city are quietly confident that its candidate Jack Brereton can beat UKIP’s Paul Nuttall to second place, with Labour currently expected to hold onto the seat.

A third place finish would be a disaster for Nuttall who up until recently was favourite to win on Thursday and become UKIP’s second MP in the House of Commons.

However, the row over the false claim that he lost close friends in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster has cut through with locals, with questions about the UKIP leader’s honesty cropping up time and time again on doorsteps last week.

Former UKIP leadership candidate Suzanne Evans told us at the party’s spring conference that the Hillsborough controversy won’t damage Nuttall’s bid to win in Stoke, but the reality on the ground appears to be very different.

“It is funny watching them fall on their own sword”

As things stand, Stoke-on-Trent Central appears to be slipping through UKIP’s grasp.

Senior UKIP figures were reluctant to discuss defeat at the party’s conference in Bolton last week — but weren’t exactly banging the victory drum, either. “Tough” was one figure’s response when asked them to access Nuttall’s chances of dethroning Labour. “It’s going to be tough — but it is still winnable,” another said.

Early postal votes indicate that Labour is “killing” UKIP in the battle for the Staffordshire seat, the Huffington Post’s Paul Waugh reports on Tuesday. This report chimes with growing confidence within Labour’s Stoke campaign that its candidate Gareth Snell will be victorious when the result is announced in the early hours of Friday morning.

A source working close to Labour’s campaign in Stoke told us: “There is no crowd that the Hillsborough stuff won’t play badly with. Pretty much any by-election campaign in the North will see that wheeled out now. It’s hugely toxic.”

Adding: “It is funny watching them [UKIP] fall on their own sword.”

The fact that Prime Minister Theresa May made the 300-mile round trip from Westminster to Stoke last week is an indication that the Tories are confident of outperforming early projections. The Conservatives were initially all but ruled out in Stoke amid talk of a two-horse race between Labour and UKIP and speculation that the bulk of Tory resources being committed to the by-election in Copeland.

However, Conservative campaigners are confident that 25-year-old councillor Brereton will beat Nuttall to second place. It would be a good result for the Tories who are currently odds-on to win in Copeland and take a seat from Labour that has been controlled by the latter for nearly a century.

As we reported on Monday, Labour activists in Stoke are concerned that apathy among 2015 voters could hand the seat to Tory candidate Trudy Harrison. Labour candidate Gillian Troughton has put the NHS at the forefront of her campaign but the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn is proving to be a divisive issue on the ground in Cumbria, with many of Labour’s traditional, working-class voters feeling unrepresented by the party’s left-wing, London leadership.

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