Paul Nuttall is hostage to Ukip – and he doesn't look happy about it | John Crace

John Crace
Praying for it to be over: Paul Nuttall at the launch of the party’s election campaign in London. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA

Just four days after being held hostage in the Marriott hotel on Westminster Bridge where he had been introducing his “integration agenda”, the Ukip leader, Paul Nuttall, returned to the crime scene for the launch of his party’s general election campaign. Nuttall looked understandably frayed. He might have led the raid on Dieppe in 1942 and the SAS assault on the Iranian embassy in 1980, but no amount of wet ops training could prepare you for the surprise of being taken hostage by yourself.

Removing himself from himself had taken it out of him. Where four days previously Nuttall had been upbeat about Ukip’s chances, now he appeared as if he couldn’t wait for the whole campaign to be over – so he could resume his career as a professional footballer. The words were willing, but the flesh was weak. He could talk about being up for the fight, but his lacklustre tone suggested otherwise. Defeat seeped out of every pore. He just didn’t have the bluster of Nigel Farage. Then again even Nigel no longer has Nigel’s usual optimism.

“Ukip is the only party who can deliver a proper Brexit,” he insisted. The Tories were just fly-by-night Brexiteers. Johnny-Come-Latelies who were just as likely to change their minds about leaving the EU as delivering the UK from the jackboot of Europe. Only with Ukip could Britain be guaranteed a country in which Muslims would be prevented from wearing anything on their heads even in cold weather, and fishermen would have the right to fish wherever they wanted.

Even for Ukip it was something of a niche sell and the halfhearted smatterings of applause from the four members of the party high command who had bothered to turn up for the launch suggested that they too believed the game was finally up. “I predict Ukip will confound expectations on 8 June,” Nuttall concluded limply. Only by getting even fewer votes than are currently predicted. Ukip’s lasting legacy has been to act as a gateway drug to allow disaffected working-class voters to mainline the darkest of dark blue Conservatism. When Theresa May had told her party’s conference that the Conservatives needed to stop being the nasty party, she had meant it. She just hadn’t told them she was planning to reinvent them as the even nastier party.

As his speech petered out, the silence was filled with questions. Could Nuttall say where he was planning to stand as a candidate? He couldn’t. He was still far too traumatised by his self-imposed hostage situation and wasn’t thinking straight. Everyone would have to give him an extra 24 hours recovery and then he would be ready to reveal all.

“Is it going to be Boston and Skegness?” someone shouted. Nuttall couldn’t confirm the rumours. He still had his goodbyes to say to Stoke. Over the 10 minutes he had spent in Stoke he had put down strong local ties and it wouldn’t be easy selling the five houses he had bought in the constituency or standing down from the committee of the local Hillsborough survivors group. “Do you know the name of the Boston United manager,” chipped in Channel 4’s Michael Crick. It had just momentarily slipped his mind though he was an extremely close friend. But give him another day and it would come back to him.

Things didn’t get any better when Nuttall was asked if Ukip was just becoming the last chance saloon for racists and bigots. “Absolutely not,” he said. He had nothing against Muslims providing they were the right kind of Muslim. The sort of Muslim who was basically a Christian. This might have been better received if several Ukip activists hadn’t evicted a Muslim woman, along with other members of the campaign group Stand Up Against Racism, who were protesting against Ukip’s policy to ban the burqa and had gatecrashed the launch 15 minutes before it had been due to start. Just another of the wrong kind of Muslim.

By the time the event drew to a close the melancholia was overwhelming. Would he resign if the party did worse than in 2015? Nuttall’s body language said “I can’t wait” but he managed to force out the obligatory “no”. Nigel had failed to be elected as an MP seven times; by the time he had lost in Boston he would have only lost six times. That proved he was less of a loser. With that, he retreated back to the room in which he had barricaded himself earlier in the week. Only this time no members of the press were interested in acting as his hostage negotiator. Somehow that made things even worse.

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