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Nigel Farage is still King Ukip - but Paul Nuttall is learning fast

The new Ukip leader found his audience when he promised "Brexit means exit". 

It’s been a tricky week for Ukip, but you wouldn’t guess from the way Nigel Farage came to the stage at the party's spring conference. 

With the Game Of Thrones theme booming across the hall in Bolton’s Macron Stadium, the former leader strutted down the aisle buffeted by security detail and photographers, stopping to warmly shake hands and beaming all round.

It turned out that the grand old man of Ukip has no need for the leadership title which Paul Nuttall now wears - to his fanbase, he was already the star. 

But it seems like there may be room for both men at the top. The reception for each scaled dizzying heights of excitement in a hall pumped up on post-Brexit fervour.

First out was would-be UK Ambassador Farage, his ruddy cheeks aglow with the praise of US President Donald Trump.

Introduced by party chairman Paul Oakden as “a man who has changed and continues to change the course of history", the larger-than-life character of the Brexiteer-in-chief has only grown bigger in the last seven months.

“It’s remarkable to think that 2016 is one of those years that children will read about in history books in 100 or 200 years’ time," he declared. “They will read that 2016 was a year of political revolution. And it was all started by Ukip.”

Farage also clearly relishes the part that he has played, by his own declaration, in the election of Trump. In his speech, he touched on his own special relationship with the new Commander-in-Chief.

“People like myself or Trump have been held up to hold the most outrageous political views,” he said. He cited Chatham House figures suggesting more than 50 per cent of the population in eight European countries said they wanted a “total end to all immigration from predominantly Muslim countries”.

“Far from leading public opinion, we now find ourselves firmly on the left of public opinion," he declared. Karl Marx no doubt turned in his grave. 

Next up was present Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, who stormed onto the stage to the Lightning Seeds’ Marvellous, his face shining in the flashing lights of masses of press photographers.

Where Farage’s speech featured his own place in the sweeping political changes, Nuttall zeroed in more closely on manifesto affairs. He demanded that the government repeal the 1972 European Communities Act.

“We have nothing to fear, Project Fear has failed," he claimed. "Manufacturing is up, unemployment is down, we are the fastest growing economy in the G7.”

Nuttall also elaborated on a plan to slash Vat on everything from domestic energy bills to hot takeaway food "so we can return to the days when things were cheap as chips".

Where Farage and Nuttall had the same message, it was for Labour - Ukip is coming for you. 

“Ukip will eventually replace the Labour party as the voice of the patriotic people of Britain - starting on February 23,” Nuttall declared, referencing the Stoke by-election in which he is standing. Both men tried to present it as being in the bag.

He did offer an apology for erroneous information which somehow ended up on his website suggesting he had lost close friends at Hillsborough (he hasn't), but also claimed there was a smear campaign against him. 

Still, for all the discussion of policies and personality, the new leader clearly understands what the Ukip party members' catnip is. 

"We must hold the government’s feet to the fire and ensure that Brexit means exit," he said. The last lines of his speech could easily have been transposed from Farage, who has been chanting the same refrain for decades. 

“We want our country back and we’re going to get it,” Nuttall roared, and applause in the hall rose again.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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