Ukip leaders present and future? Photo: Bloomberg
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Suzanne Evans, Ukip's leader-in waiting

The Nicola Sturgeon to Nigel Farage's Alex Salmond?

Nigel Farage’s political career could end next week: a new poll puts him two points behind in Thanet South. Should he lose, he has declared that he will quit as leader of Ukip.

If he is true to his word, a vicious scrap to succeed him will ensue. Two senior party figures, Steven Woolfe and Paul Nuttall, have already revealed that they would like to be next leader. Farage, though, has a different view: he has repeatedly said that he expects Ukip’s next leader to be a woman and, in asking Suzanne Evans to write the party manifesto and then handing her the stage at the launch he has effectively anointed her his preferred successor. Perhaps he see Evans as the Nicola Sturgeon to his Alex Salmond: less threatening and more mild-manner and better able to reach out beyond the party’s core vote.

“If Nigel ever stood down, I think there would be quite a lot of people that might be interested in being leader and yeah I’ll be honest - I might be one of them,” Evans tells me when me meet near Ukip HQ in London. But she later says: “It's not something I’m ready for - he's going to stay and he's going to win.” In the early hours of May 8, we will find out.

The success of Ukip’s manifesto – a document that could hardly be further removed from what Nigel Farage called the “drivel” in 2010 – is one reason that Evans is ideally placed to become next leader. At the start of January, Evans took over manifesto-writing duties from Tim Aker – who claimed to be too stretched as an MEP, councillor and candidate for eminently winnable Thurrock – and was handed a five-month contract by Ukip. 

“I knew it was going to be a big task, but I don’t think I anticipated just how big it was going to be.” Nor did she anticipate that her e-mail inbox would be flooded “like confetti” with suggestions, including that sending prisoners to North Korea could end the prison crisis. “That did not come from a Ukip supporter." Not all suggestions were so unwelcome: the manifesto proposes instruction in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation in all secondary schools after Evans followed up on an idea from a 14-year-old girl.

Farage was consulted at every turn, and retained control of the process. “There were a couple of things he said he didn't agree with that came out.

“Nigel and I kept in close contact. We had a couple of meetings as it was in progress. If there was something I wasn't sure about, I'd phone him; something he particularly wanted in - he'd phone me.”

Within hours of the launch, Evans found that she had produced a document that – even by those who vehemently disagreed with it – had avoided ridicule. It attracted praise from both the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail. “I was like wow - I think that’s called a result. Praise from the left and praise from the right!”

Not bad for someone who had only joined Ukip two years earlier, when Evans and a group of Conservative Party councillors in Wimbledon defected. “It’s amazing isn't it really? I feel very flattered that the party's recognised that I’ve got something to offer.” Many now consider her the second most important person in Ukip, a notion she calls “frightening”.

Evans shows no inclination to diverge from the Farage line. Although she is a former employer and presenter for BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live, she endorses Farage’s denunciation of the corporation, calling it “so unfair and so unbalanced” in its coverage of Ukip. It is not her only target.

“The London media gives us such a hard time as well. Every time I open the Metro or the Evening Standard it's all anti-Ukip, constantly anti-Ukip. They only run the bad stories and their facts are hopeless - they called me deputy leader Suzanne Jones the other day in the Metro. They just don't do their facts, they don't do their homework, it's all anti stuff, they don't do any policies, they've done nothing positive on our manifesto.”

She suggests the media in London is one reason why Ukip performs so poorly in the capital. “London is very good at self-censoring,” she says, denouncing the audience’s treatment of her on This Week the previous night. It is the first time Evans hints at losing her sense of self-control.

“That London audience last night - 'Oh you're not allowed to vote for Ukip. The papers tell me that Ukip's not very nice therefore I must boo when Suzanne Evans walks on stage regardless of what she says, that's unimportant. Regardless of what Ukip policies really are I must not be seen to be voting for something that according to my liberal metropolitan elite friends is not very nice’.”

The ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ certainly didn’t approve of Farage’s comment that he preferred immigrants from India and Australia to those from Eastern Europe. Evans does not disagree with her leader. “I used to joke sometimes particularly with some of my Hindu friends, and I'd say 'sometimes you're more British than I am in terms of your attitudes and ambitions and also love for the English language and love for the country'. So I think we do actually have through the Commonwealth a common culture.”

Evans also agrees with her boss that Britain should give priority to Christian refugees. “There's nowhere else for them to go,” she says. She advocates taking “one thousand, two thousand” refugees a year from those fleeing across the Mediterranean, though she is unconvinced that all those who make the hazardous trip do so for well-intentioned reasons, quoting a friend who came on a boat from Albania 20 years ago.

“He says: 'I know six out of ten people on those boats are people who are economic migrants get on those boats they take their luck, whether rightly or wrongly they have been sold a vision that they will get across, and I know that they are coming over with criminal intent' - that's him saying that not me, someone who has actually been on a boat.”

But her main focus is on the election; Evans is dividing her time between Shrewsbury and Atcham, where she is standing for Parliament, albeit in a seat that does not rank among Ukip’s targets, and media studios in London. “I’m probably most use for the party there.”

Evans repeats her previous prediction that Ukip will win eight seats, and “at least 100 second places.”

“That will be fantastic and I think we will do that. People will see that we're a real challenger and then it’s 2020, when I think we could realistically be the opposition.”

But whatever happens next week, Evans intends for the electorate to see plenty more of her in  the coming years. “I’m loving it. I’m certainly not going to leave politics,” she says. “I think I’m fairly good at it - people seem to think I am." Farage certainly agrees.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Manchester Gorton?

Will Labour lose in Manchester Gorton?

The death of Gerald Kaufman will trigger a by-election in his Manchester Gorton seat, which has been Labour-held since 1935.

Coming so soon after the disappointing results in Copeland – where the seat was lost to the Tories – and Stoke – where the party lost vote share – some overly excitable commentators are talking up the possibility of an upset in the Manchester seat.

But Gorton is very different to Stoke-on-Trent and to Copeland. The Labour lead is 56 points, compared to 16.5 points in Stoke-on-Trent and 6.5 points in Copeland. (As I’ve written before and will doubtless write again, it’s much more instructive to talk about vote share rather than vote numbers in British elections. Most of the country tends to vote in the same way even if they vote at different volumes.)

That 47 per cent of the seat's residents come from a non-white background and that the Labour party holds every council seat in the constituency only adds to the party's strong position here. 

But that doesn’t mean that there is no interest to be had in the contest at all. That the seat voted heavily to remain in the European Union – around 65 per cent according to Chris Hanretty’s estimates – will provide a glimmer of hope to the Liberal Democrats that they can finish a strong second, as they did consistently from 1992 to 2010, before slumping to fifth in 2015.

How they do in second place will inform how jittery Labour MPs with smaller majorities and a history of Liberal Democrat activity are about Labour’s embrace of Brexit.

They also have a narrow chance of becoming competitive should Labour’s selection turn acrimonious. The seat has been in special measures since 2004, which means the selection will be run by the party’s national executive committee, though several local candidates are tipped to run, with Afzal Khan,  a local MEP, and Julie Reid, a local councillor, both expected to run for the vacant seats.

It’s highly unlikely but if the selection occurs in a way that irritates the local party or provokes serious local in-fighting, you can just about see how the Liberal Democrats give everyone a surprise. But it’s about as likely as the United States men landing on Mars any time soon – plausible, but far-fetched. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.