PoliticsHome can remain impartial

Does the purchase of the website by Lord Ashcroft mark the end of its neutral stance? Not necessaril

Does the acquisition of PoliticsHome by Lord Ashcroft threaten the website's impartiality? Many on the liberal left think it does. Following the departure of the Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley as editor-in-chief, at least 21 left-leaning figures have resigned from the site's panel of 100 Westminster insiders.

The group resignation letter on Liberal Conspiracy cited concerns that the sale of a controlling stake in PoliticsHome to Ashcroft, deputy chairman of the Conservative Party, was incompatible with the site's non-partisan stance.

The first point to make is that Ashcroft is surely self-interested enough to recognise that if he undermines the site's independence PoliticsHome will lose all credibility.

Total Politics, the magazine part-owned by Ashcroft, hasn't degenerated into a right-wing Pravda; that suggests the billionaire may be capable of separating his commercial interests from his political interests. The Labour MP Denis MacShane was one of those who resigned from the PoliticsHome panel, but he appears content to sit on the Total Politics editorial board.

Yet even if we assume, for the sake of argument, that Ashcroft intends to transform the site into a partisan operation, there is little scope for him to do so. PoliticsHome is dominated by news aggregation and polling and currently features no opinionated commentary. Could this change under Ashcroft's ownership? Perhaps, but let's wait and see.

There's no evidence that the permanent involvement of the conservative Stephan Shakespeare, until recently sole owner of PoliticsHome, has compromised the site's impartiality. Certainly in my time at PoliticsHome (I worked there before joining the NS), I saw nothing to suggest that Shakespeare exercised Richard Desmond-style control. His links to the Conservative Party as Jeffrey Archer's former spokesman and as a former Tory election candidate were never disguised.

The backlash from the left is based largely on two factors. First, a supposition that Rawnsley's decision to resign means he must know something we don't. And second, a general disdain for Ashcroft, because of the millions he pours into marginal constituencies and his failure to clarify his tax status.

These are reasonable grievances against Ashcroft and they're ones I share, but it's a different argument. Is there a risk that PoliticsHome could acquire a subtle bias by giving less weight to stories that are likely to upset or anger Ashcroft? There is, but it's a risk greatly increased by the decision of so many on the left to sever their ties with the site.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.