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Paul Nuttall Failed His First Test As Ukip Leader

24/02/2017 17:07
Darren Staples / Reuters

Despite managing to finish in second place in yet another Labour-held constituency, UKIP's inability to make considerable gains in Thursday's Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election can only be seen as being an underwhelming and disappointing result.

With the Labour Party in disarray as it tries, and fails, to respond to Britain's decision to leave the European Union, the scene was set for a famous UKIP victory. 69.7% of Stoke-on-Trent residents backed Leave last June - the highest of any British city - whilst Labour's grip on an area that it has too often taken for granted has slipped considerably in recent years. UKIP made impressive gains in all three of the city's constituencies in the last general election, knocking the Conservatives down to third place in Stoke-on-Trent Central and closing the gap between the two to just 2.7% in neighbouring Stoke-on-Trent North.

Heading into Thursday's by-election, political commentators concentrated on UKIP's very real chances of doubling their representation in the House of Commons. Whilst they downplayed the significance of a victory, Paul Nuttall's decision to stand mere months after winning the leadership election showed just how important they viewed the seat to be. They had good reason to do so, as a friendly demographic makeup coupled with a Labour Party torn apart by infighting could, and should, have resulted in a second spot in Parliament. Added to this was the good fortune, from UKIP's point of view, of facing a pro-Remain candidate who referred to Brexit as "a massive pile of shit". Nuttall would have viewed Labour's decision to put forward Gareth Snell as a blessing, paving the way for what surely was to be a victory for the new leader at his fifth time of trying.

It wasn't to be, however, as once again UKIP shot themselves in the foot. As favourable as the landscape may have been, and as dismal as Labour's current predicament is, a party can only achieve so much when their campaign is blighted by amateurism and naivety. By putting their leader forward as a candidate, UKIP were suggesting to the constituents of Stoke-on-Trent Central that they respected their vote and wanted their best man to represent them. For the first time, they were offering to voters the new, unified, post-Farage vision of what UKIP stands for in Brexit Britain. But old habits die hard, and despite Nuttall now leading the way, poor organisation, lazy campaigning and a loose grip on the truth all resulted in yet another disappointment for the Eurosceptic party.

Nuttall has always had a reputation as someone who stretches the truth to impress, and the run-up to Thursday's by-election saw his campaign crumble under the weight of several gaffes and fraudulent claims. First there was the furore over the address listed on his nomination form, resulting in him being investigated by the Staffordshire Police, and this wasn't made any better when he proved unable to answer basic questions about the local area.

Claims that he had earned a PhD from Liverpool Hope University and previously played professionally for Tranmere Rovers Football Club resurfaced, with scepticism about an article on his personal website that he had lost "close friends" at the Hillsborough disaster following soon after. Nuttall blamed the media for what he called "a coordinated, cruel and almost evil smear campaign", but his inability to sufficiently answer fair and legitimate questions only continued to hurt his by-election chances.

In the end, he was only able to improve UKIP's share of the vote by 2.1%. With Labour's lead remaining comfortable at 12.4% (albeit on a reduced turnout of just over 21,000), the catastrophic defeat that many were predicting did not come to pass, and instead of the media being preoccupied with two by-election disasters in one day for Jeremy Corbyn's struggling party, they have instead focused on what this poor result means for the future of UKIP.

When he was elected leader of the party last November, Nuttall promised to face down "a Labour Party that has more in common with Stoke Newington than Stoke-on-Trent" and replace them in their traditional, working-class heartlands, but the disappointment of Thursday's by-election suggests that their project may require more time and effort than originally thought.

Despite Labour's fragile nature, they still retain pockets of dedicated support across the north and the Midlands, and these voters are yet to be convinced that they would be better off voting for a party that, post-referendum, has now achieved what it was set up to do. With Britain in the process of leaving the EU and Theresa May increasingly adopting tough rhetoric on Brexit and immigration, UKIP are struggling to find a purpose, resulting in the traditional Labour voters they are so desperately courting either staying put or jumping ship to a Conservative Party that has shifted to the right.

Until the party are able to present to the electorate a coherent, attractive and gaffe-free plan, they are in serious danger of returning to the political wilderness. The current landscape is being shaped almost solely by an ascendant Conservative Party, leaving Nuttall with a lot of work to do if he is to stop his party from descending into irrelevance.

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