Keys and Gray hit the airwaves

The former Sky duo, sacked after making sexist remarks, have made their debut on TalkSport. But did

"You're LISTENING to Keys and Gray on TalkSport," said Richard Keys, almost shouting the emphasis on the second word. Perhaps he wanted us all to know that the medium had changed, as if we hadn't guessed already. Those TV days have gone, maybe for ever.

But here they were, the sexism row behind them, the small hiatus finished; here were Keys and Andy Gray in what many might see as their spiritual home – the unashamedly brassy TalkSport. But if we'd tuned in hoping for any slip-ups, un-PC language or off-mike muttering, we were going to be disappointed. And disappointment was very much the order of the day early on, as they sucked most of the life out of the weekend's Premier League games. Maybe they were nervous. Maybe they were just being careful. Whatever it was, the airwaves weren't crackling.

The pair were introduced with the kind of up-tempo, rococo, ZZ Top-style cock rock that sports programmes like to use to give a sense of (usually misplaced) dynamism, as highlights of the weekend's goals were played. I've not listened to this station much, preferring to stick with the advert-free FiveLive for my Saturday football radio fix (unlike some of my fellow New Statesman bloggers, I have a great love for the beautiful game); but it appears that TalkSport has hired someone to grunt and bark every time a goal goes in. Fancy that.

"We've got a goal! WHAT A GOAL! Oh my word. YOU BEAUTY! HA HA! Oh! OH! Grrrrrrrr! BANG!" were some of the choicer cuts. Compared to which, "Would you smash it?", Keys's infamous off-air comment to Jamie Redknapp, seems like the kind of polite thing you might hear over the gentle clinking of brandy glasses at a gentleman's club. Perhaps, after all, these two were being hired to lend a bit of gravitas to proceedings. Maybe TalkSport needs them more than they need TalkSport.

The show, sold as "unmissable debate and exclusive interviews from the biggest names in sport", began shakily, with the eminently missable Dion Dublin musing over whether Wayne Rooney's goal for Manchester United against Manchester City at the weekend was the best goal ever in the history of the world ever.

"Was it the best EVER? What was it? The best? His best?" roared Keys. "It's up there," said Dublin laconically. And that was that. Gray and Dublin reminisced about Big Ron's Corridor of Uncertainty. And then it was time for "Incey", Paul Ince, to wander through the same topics, telling "Keysy" that Eric Cantona's chip against Sunderland was the best goal he'd seen for United. Peter Reid, Gray's old Everton team-mate, turned up minutes later, and when asked about that Cantona goal, had to remind the pair that he'd been manager of Sunderland that day. "That's how much you've lost the plot since you've been away," laughed Reid.

Lost the plot? They didn't do too badly, to be fair, for a first attempt back at radio since the glory days of Sky Sports. There were only a couple of errors – Keys accidentally cutting off Ince in his prime, and one ill-advised use of the verb "smash" apropos a goal by Matt Le Tisser – but the only way is up. First show done, it can only get better. After an hour and a half, I was beginning to warm to them, despite myself. There was no self-pitying, no angry defiance; they just got on with it. I actually ended up rooting for them.

There was just a moment of sadness, though, a tinge of Alan Partridge, where you could sense it all struck home for Keys. "You're listening to Richard Keys and Andy Gray on TalkSport With WICKES, get down to Wickes for 33 per cent off Palma ceramic wall tiles, now only £14.56 per pack," he said, barely able to contain his excitement.

The heady days have gone, indeed. But maybe all isn't lost.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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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.