Paul Nuttall was visibly emotional at the UKIP Spring Conference in Bolton today, when the crowd expressed its support for him through a standing ovation. Small wonder – he’s had a very bad week.
As we’ve previously discussed, Nuttall’s job leading UKIP was already a very challenging task. Not only is he trying to establish his own identity and authority as successor to the Party’s undisputed hero, but Farage shows no signs of giving up the limelight and letting the new guy get on with the job.
It was a gutsy move to nominate himself as the People’s Army candidate in Stoke-on-Trent Central – Nuttall could have said he was focusing on leading his Party, and handed the gig to a local candidate for whom the campaign would be a sole pursuit. Instead, he gambled on the by-election as an opportunity for an early and historic success in his mission to supplant Labour.
We don’t yet know if that gamble has paid off, but the punishing process is there for all to see. After an early blunder over his formal residency in the constituency, in the last few days Nuttall has become embroiled in a scandal over untrue claims about Hillsborough published on his website.
There aren’t many more sensitive events to tell untruths about than the Hillsborough disaster – particularly when the person in question has made great play of his Merseyside roots.
His reaction to being confronted with the claims was less than ideal. First, UKIP let it be known that one of his staffers was taking the blame – an unattractive quality in someone who’s meant to be a leader. If this account is true, then Nuttall’s saying he put someone in charge of putting words in his own mouth without ensuring they had the correct information, and without any checks afterwards, which would display poor judgement at best.
Since blaming one of his team, and then graciously rejecting her offer to resign, he’s toughened his line a bit and is now lashing out at a “smear campaign”.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s fair to say that a week before the by-election he had hoped to be riding a wave of popularity, rather than answering questions about the truth of his own backstory. It’s been an uncomfortable experience for him, and has worried some UKIP members about their party’s future.
But does it really matter?
In general terms, UKIP has been here before – the People’s Army gone through media criticism over a wide variety of quite serious errors in the past and survived untarnished in the eyes of many of its supporters. Farage in particular was able to build up a following which was willing to disbelieve anything negative they might hear about him. Nuttall would like to repeat that feat. Although he isn’t as talented a communicator as his predecessor and may struggle to do so, for now he appears to be benefiting from a continued siege mentality by which core UKIPers treat most negative coverage as inherently untrustworthy or unreasonable.
In Stoke in particular, I doubt reports of Nuttall’s bogus Hillsborough claims will have a great deal of cut-through. By-election electorates live under a continuous barrage of leaflets and other materials, and many will already have made up their minds. Those switching from one party to another for the first time ever swiftly become strongly committed to their choice, too, and Labour haven’t exactly offered a great candidate to woo them back. Who will win the by-election is still up in the air.
Where Nuttall might suffer rather more for this story is back home on Merseyside. There, for obvious reasons, feelings about the tragedy are more intense than anywhere else, and the issue has a particularly vexed history when it comes to politicians’ involvement in it. But this has never been a UKIP stronghold – historically the party has found it tough territory, showing that its appeals to Labour voters don’t automatically work in every red heartland. The UKIP leader will, I suspect, be keeping his head down for a while when on home turf.
I’m sure he wouldn’t want to repeat the last few days. He and his team have blundered in ways that an experienced politician should not, and with a high-stakes gamble underway the pressure on him must be immense. But it still doesn’t seem career-ending – UKIP, after all, runs on rules all of its own.