Morning Call: pick of the comment

The ten must-read pieces from this morning's papers.

1. The Tories will get burnt fighting fire with fire (Times)

Daniel Finkelstein says that negative campaigning could damage David Cameron's image with the voters. The media focus on the Tories is an opportunity, not a threat.

2. Can anyone explain what the Conservative Party stands for? (Daily Telegraph)

Simon Heffer is not impressed with the way Cameron has moved power of decision-making in the party to the centre. In the absence of the old, core right-wing policies, the Tories lack clarity and direction, and are haemorrhaging support to fringe parties.

3. Bashing the rich won't work for Obama. But other rallying cries might (Guardian)

Obama is shrewd not to inveigh against the bankers, says Michael Tomasky. It would be better to make his cause by reminding America of the good things that the government does, and who higher taxes will help.

4. Passport to the truth in Dubai remains secret (Independent)

Whoever killed the Hamas official in Dubai is still playing an old, dirty war, says Robert Fisk. Now we must look beneath the propaganda for the truth.

5. How to walk the fiscal tightrope that lies before us (Financial Times)

Martin Wolf warns that huge fiscal tightening could tip much of the world back into recession. We must make it one of our priorities to let the private sector heal.

6. Power to the people -- and trust them too (Times)

James Purnell and Jim Murphy renew calls for a radical Labour manifesto. The party has lost faith in its communal roots, they say, but the public can be trusted to make the right decisions.

7. Why is our anti-war outrage muted at this Afghan folly? (Guardian)

Even doubters seem to be giving the military intervention one last chance, says John Kampfner, but there is little confidence it will succeed.

8. The year China showed its claws (Financial Times)

David Shambaugh looks at what lies behind Beijing's new assertiveness. Is it a case of true colours showing, a display of nationalism in the run-up to a change of leadership, or a sign of confidence gained from the vindication of the Chinese development model?

9. The Bank of England is right to hold its nerve (Independent)

Inflation is proving sticky, but it is premature to tighten monetary policy, says the main leader.

10. Hostage to hot air (Guardian)

Isabel Hilton says that the climate debate in the United States is mired in political weakness and infighting, setting the tone for unconstructive global negotiations.

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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.