Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Times's David Aaronovitch says that the political class now refuses to put the positive case for immigration:

It is utterly false to say that we haven't talked about immigration. Many of our newspapers do very little but talk about it. They don't "debate" it because their operating assumption, like Mr Field's, is that it is bad; it overwhelms us; floods us; swamps us; it swarms in Sangatte, until it is closed, then infests "the Jungle".

No other point of view is put, just as Mr Straw failed to put it on Thursday, as he dangled between denial and defence.

The Independent's Steve Richards argues that George Osborne was wrong to claim that capping bank bonuses would make more loans available:

There is no evidence to suggest that if banks had a bit more spare cash in the form of shares they would make more loans available. Most banks are not strapped for cash at the moment, but are still reluctant to lend. It is one of the new perversities in banking. There is no correlation between the amount of cash available and their willingness to lend.

The Financial Times's Gideon Rachman says that, as there is no democratic mandate for the post, the EU is not ready for a high-profile president:

Blair would be presented as a real "president of Europe" -- able to speak on equal terms with Barack Obama of the US or Hu Jintao of China.

But if Mr Blair turned up in Beijing claiming to be president of Europe, the only thing that he would have in common with Hu Jintao is that they would both lack a democratic mandate. Ordinary Europeans would be justified in asking by what right the unelected Mr Blair speaks for them. The former prime minister remains a deeply controversial figure in much of Europe because of his support for the Iraq war.

In the New York Times, Roger Cohen discusses his meeting with David Miliband and says that Britain's resolve in Afghanistan appears to be greater than that of the US:

These were the convictions behind Brown's decision earlier this month to send 500 more British troops to Afghanistan, bringing the contingent to 9,500 -- a decision the prime minister expected to be "consistent with what the Americans will decide."

The reinforcement was about one quarter of what British generals had requested. In the US case, Gen Stanley McChrystal has asked for about 40,000 more troops. Doing the math on a "consistent" basis suggests a substantial American reinforcement short of McChrystal's request will eventually be announced by the White House.

The Guardian's leader defends baboons from the rifle of A A Gill:

A few million years ago baboons and human beings were more closely related than now. At some point the species diverged, with one line evolving into hominids and, ultimately, restaurant critics. The other line has remained in Africa, living in simple but rather admirable societies where intelligence and advanced social skills are highly valued. Respect to the baboon.

 

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.