Paul Nuttall revealed on Saturday that he is to stand for Ukip in the heavily Brexit-supporting constituency of Boston and Skegness in what is widely regarded as his last throw of the dice as party leader.
Polls show that support for Ukip is dropping by the week with many voters defecting to the Tories. In an apparent admission that the party is facing a battle for its survival, months after Britain’s vote for Brexit vote took the wind out of its sails, Nuttall insisted Ukip had a “great future” and the question of whether it would match the 4m votes it got in 2015 was irrelevant.
“Basically, Ukip has got to stay on the pitch, stay strong and let’s hope that we can get people elected in this election,” he said on Saturday, during a visit to the north-eastern target seat of Hartlepool.
The party, he said, would prosper in the coming years when angry and disappointed Leave voters would abandon the Tories, after Theresa May starts to “backslide” over her Brexit promises.
At the Ship pub, where Nuttall gave interviews in a cramped backroom, “lifelong” Labour supporters Phil and Christine Tobin explained why they had switched to Ukip. “In Hartlepool, we seem to just always lose out – during and after a recession. Everything gets taken from us, whether it’s the steel industry or anything else,” said Phil, 64, a retired steel erector. “Say what you like about Nigel Farage or whoever has come after him, but at least he was listening to us.”
Nodding in agreement, Christine chipped in another reason why the couple had abandoned Labour. “Trident. We’ll have nothing left to support our standing in the world if Jeremy Corbyn gives that away. When you’re a country at the big table, you need to have something in your back pocket.”
A day earlier, the steel shutters were going up at the food bank around the time that Nuttall was launching Ukip’s election campaign in London.
Like other parts of Britain that have felt the chill winds not just of the latest economic downturn but of England’s longer term northern industrial decline, activity has been brisker at the food bank, where co-ordinator Abbie Knowles has noted more young single men coming in. It’s a trend she suggests may be linked to the local roll-out of universal credit among that group.
“There is a lot of anger and people are interested not just in local politics but nationally, too,” said Knowles, when asked how the second general election in two years was seen in a constituency that voted 69.6% in favour of leaving the EU, one of the country’s highest Leave votes.
Yet the town was once politically synonymous with New Labour. Peter Mandelson denies that it was in a Hartlepool chippie that he once mistook mushy peas for guacamole when he was the local MP, but the story remains a parable of the party’s supposed disconnect with its traditional base. This time, Labour has chosen regional Unison organiser Mike Hill to defend a seat it has held since the 1960s.
With Labour majorities dwindling over the past three elections and just 3,000 voters separating it from Ukip in 2015, it should be the sort of place that forms the basis of Nuttall’s long-heralded dream of overhauling Labour in its working-class northern bastions. Yet, the party’s tendency to hit the self-destruct button shows no sign of abating.
Squabbling among Ukip members in Hartlepool last week led some to accuse the leadership of a lack of democracy in an open letter. Elsewhere, the party has come under fire for selecting a parliamentary candidate in south London who has described Islam as evil. It emerged on Saturday that Ukip had decided to block Anne Marie Waters, an activist from the anti-Islam Pegida movement, from standing.
Nuttall’s own political stock has fallen since he failed to win the Stoke-on-Trent Central byelection in February, and achieved national notoriety over false claims that he lost close friends in the Hillsborough tragedy. But Ukip still has some fairly strong prospects in the election. While its hopes for the Kent seat of South Thanet may suffer from former leader and (arguably) its greatest asset, Nigel Farage’s decision to sit out the election, it might have strong shouts in Boston and the Essex seat of Thurrock.
The latter, which registered the third highest percentage vote for Leave, is an ultra-marginal seat where Ukip MEP Tim Aker is going up against Tory MP Jackie Doyle-Price. While Labour was second, just 974 votes separate Aker from Doyle-Price, the only south Essex MP to have backed remaining in the EU.
But seasoned observers tip Ukip for a disappointing – if not catastrophic –election. “Ukip’s basic problem is that it is being squeezed in Conservative-held territory and we are seeing in the data quite a significant haemorrhaging of votes from Ukip to the Conservatives,” said Matthew Goodwin, Ukip expert and professor of political science at the University of Kent. “The Ukip leadership are clearly aware of this and so I suspect they are tilting towards more northern-held Labour seats in the hope they will hold on to voters who still view the Conservative party as too toxic. It should be stated that the Conservative party appears to be making significant gains not only in southern marginal seats but also in Labour-held constituencies.”
“They just look a shambles actually and it does look as if their vote is collapsing in a way I would not have envisaged two weeks ago,” said Richard Wyn Jones, professor of Welsh politics at Cardiff University, of the feuding that has split Ukip in Wales after it made a major breakthrough in the latest Welsh assembly elections.
Back in Hartlepool, polling in local media has suggested that support for the Tories may be rising, turning the race into a three-horse event involving a yet-to-be announced Ukip candidate, Labour’s Mike Hill and the Conservatives’ Paul Bristow, a PR executive.
Bristow, Labour activists and Remain supporters brandishing a EU flag looked on as dozens of Ukip activists waited for Nuttall outside a pub and a scuffle broke out between two women. “The people fighting in the street have got absolutely nothing to do with Ukip. None of them are Ukip members,” said Nuttall, when it was put to him that his party’s campaign had not had the most elegant start.