When the voters of Stoke Central go to the polls on February 23, they will be doing more than electing a new MP – they will be deciding the fate of a political party.
The rise of Ukip is one of the truly impressive stories in British political history. Formed in a room at the London School of Economics in 1993, the party achieved its primary objective of getting the UK out of the EU in last year’s referendum.
With the mission accomplished, the question hanging over the party now is both simple and brutal: What is Ukip for?
And if it can’t give the voters of Stoke Central a convincing answer, does it mean the party is over?
“We’ve won the war, now we need to win the peace.”
Speaking to me in a café next to his campaign headquarters in Stoke yesterday, party leader Paul Nuttall – who is also the candidate in the election – was clear that a strong Ukip presence is needed in Parliament to stop the Government backsliding on Brexit.
He said: “The one thing about Theresa May is she’s always been very good at talking the talk, but when it comes to walking the walk she’s generally always failed, whether it’s dealing with Islamic fundamentalism when she was Home Secretary, or getting the immigration figures down to the tens of thousands. She’s failed on both accounts so I’m sorry, I’m not sure if we trust Theresa May on this, we’ll just see how this one plays out.”
Former party leader Nigel Farage summed it up in a more succinct fashion at rally in Stoke’s Victoria Hall later that day.
Addressing the 600-strong audience – who had braved protestors shouting ‘shame on you’ as they entered the hall and also a stink bomb launched into the lobby once they were inside – he said: “We’ve won the war, now we need to win the peace.”
In his speech at the event, Nuttall was keen to point out that his Labour rival – Gareth Snell – was a Remain backer in the referendum who described the Brexit vote as a “massive pile of shit”.
Speaking to me earlier that day, Snell explained his remarks:
“I said what I thought at the time as I’m the sort of person that says what I think. I’m happy to discuss why I said that at the time, but my view now is Brexit’s happened, the important thing is that we make it work for Stoke-on-Trent. I genuinely believe that Labour is the only party that will make Brexit work so working with Ruth [Smeeth] and Rob [Flello] my job will be to deliver a Brexit that means we get investment in Stoke-on-Trent.”
In a seat where an estimated 65% of voters backed Leave, a rerun of last year’s EU referendum campaign would suit Ukip down to the ground.
However, the wind has been knocked out of the party’s sails, not by the referendum result, but by Theresa May’s promise of a full Brexit: out of the Single Market, no more freedom of movement of people, and end to membership of the customs union. This is very much Ukip’s version of Brexit – and it is going ahead.
The Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech came six weeks too early for Ukip. If there was still a sense of there not being a plan, Ukip could re-run the referendum campaign in Stoke Central and would probably walk to victory.
Even those Tory MPs concerned about Ukip doing well at the party’s expense in May’s council elections are now much more relaxed because of the direction of travel of Brexit.
It may be that Ukip will have to add another string to its bow if it truly wants a parliamentary breakthrough.
Of the top 15 leave voting constituencies, just four were also in Ukip’s top 15 General Election results by closeness to winning the seat.
If it’s boiled down to simply the number of votes cast for Ukip, it is only three.
“You don’t have to be from an area to represent it.”
In the run up to the 2015 General Election, then leader Nigel Farage made numerous speeches in Labour strongholds denouncing the “parachuting in” of candidates to safe seats.
In a speech in Hartlepool, Farage cited Lord Mandelson being one of the towns’s MPs from 1997 to 2004, Tony Blair representing Sedgefield, and David Miliband serving as South Shields MP for 12 years as examples of Labour taking voters for granted.
Fast forward two years, and it is Ukip who is now being accused of “parachuting in” candidates into favorable areas.
Nuttall, born and raised in Bootle, Merseyside, has no obvious connection to Stoke, and was caught out by Channel 4’s Michael Crick last week for not actually having stayed in the house in the city he had registered with the Electoral Commission.
Whereas Nuttall is definitely not local, Labour’s candidate does have ties to the area. As well as being a resident of the area, he served as the leader of the adjacent Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council, giving him a clear understanding of local issues.
Labour is keen to flag up this difference between the two candidates, and Stoke North MP Ruth Smeeth, who is playing a very active role in getting Snell elected, told me last week: “This is him using and abusing our city as a stepping-stone for his own political career and he doesn’t care about the people here, he doesn’t care what happens next.
“For me, people will see through that that he’s got no real connection or passion for the Potteries, whereas Gareth lives here with his wife and daughter.
“Whatever happens this is Gareth’s home and he’ll be fighting for Stoke on Trent as their MP and also as a local resident and that is something that Paul Nuttall just simply can’t bring.”
Snell himself said: “He couldn’t name the six towns of Stoke on Trent and he can’t even pretend to successfully live in one of them. What he chooses to do is up to him, I’ll be focusing on my campaign.
“If Paul wants to make comments about where he does or doesn’t live, it’s is up to him, but I know the people of Stoke will see straight through that.”
When I asked Nuttall about his lack of connection to the area he now wants to represent, he was defiant in his response: “You don’t have to be local to represent a constituency. Was Winston Churchill a native of Dundee? Was Bonar Law a native of Bootle? Was Tony Blair a native of Sedgefield? Was Nick Clegg a native of Sheffield? Was Ed Miliband a native of Doncaster?”
“No, but these are people that Nigel Farage used to attack for being parachuted in.” I replied.
“The fact is you don’t have to be from an area to represent it. What I will give Stoke is a national voice. I am a national political figure, a national political leader. If I stand up in the House of Commons people will listen and things will get done,” said Nuttall.
It will be interesting to see whether the high profile of Nuttall appeals more to the voters of Stoke than being represented by a Labour MP who has a greater knowledge of the area.
“If Ukip make a breakthrough in Stoke...there will be a rout.”
It is not just for reasons of electoral pride that Ukip are desperate to send Nuttall to Westminster. The party’s only representative in the Commons is Douglas Carswell, the former Tory MP who defected to Ukip in 2014 with the aim of neutralising Nigel Farage ahead of the EU referendum.
Carswell is a controversial figure in the party, with many considering him a traitor to Ukip.
As Ukip’s only MP, Carswell controls the public funds allocated to opposition parties – known as Short money.
The civil war which engulfed Ukip in the aftermath of the 2015 election was partly triggered by Carswell’s refusal to accept all of the £650,000 he was entitled to.
That money had been earmarked by people at the top of Ukip to help fund new premises for the party after they were left without an office in 2015 – a situation which repeated itself last summer.
Funding is a constant source of concern for Ukip, with many donors choosing to fund EU referendum groups last year instead of filling the party’s coffers.
In the first six months of 2016 Ukip received just £475k in donations, compared to £2.5million in the first six months of 2015 (although this was of course in the run up to the General Election).
However, since the row, the Short money allocation system has been reformed meaning Ukip are now only entitled to £210,000 – most of which Carswell claims.
With Nuttall in the Commons, that cash would no longer be solely for Carswell to control – leading to possible clash over how the money is distributed between the two MPs. Nuttall could pull rank as leader, but Carswell is not known for deferring to authority.
The presence of a Ukip MP – who for the first time is not a Tory defector - would also impact the mindset of those on the Labour benches. Next to the party in the chamber would be a physical representation of Ukip’s plan to repaint itself as the voice of the forgotten working class in Labour heartlands.
As Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis said on Friday at a constituency meeting in Norwich South: “There are swathes of this country, like in Stoke, where we are hanging on by the fingernails to keep Ukip at bay.
“If Ukip make a breakthrough in Stoke, if they make a breakthrough in parts of the county in the north - there will be a rout.”“Once they have one voice they will have a base and it will be a domino effect. I do not want the politics of Trump in Westminster.”
Would it be the end of Ukip if Nuttall doesn’t win? No. It still has more than 430 councillors, 118 of which are up for election in May.
Retaining or increasing its presence in council chambers across the country would be a better indication of the health of the party than the result of one by-election. Nuttall spent the first two months of his leadership sorting out the party machine precisely so it can do well in local elections.
But it would, of course, be a blow for Ukip if Nuttall failed to take the seat. The party’s previous leader famously failed to get elected to the Commons on seven occasions, and this is already Nuttall’s fifth attempt.
The conditions may not be absolutely perfect for Ukip in Stoke Central, but they are pretty close to it.
A likely low-turnout means the winning threshold is lower than it would be in a general election, and the clear eurosceptism of the constituency plays into Ukip’s hands.
The apathy towards the previous MP, Tristram Hunt, shows there is no great love for Labour in the seat, although the party has tried to tackle this by selecting a local candidate.
There is unlikely to be a better set of circumstances for Ukip and Nuttall before the next election.
Correction: This article originally stated Gareth Snell lived in the city of Stoke, when he fact he resides in the adjacent borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme.