Morning Call: pick of the papers

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

1. Will Ed Miliband be an Obama or an Hollande?  (Guardian)

The Labour party leader faces a choice he's still not made: to keep ambitions modest, or to offer a genuinely radical vision , says Jonathan Freedland.

2. Why Eastleigh could soon turn beastly  (Daily Telegraph)

As campaigning begins for the parliamentary seat vacated by Chris Huhne, Tory minders try to control their outspoken candidate, Maria Hutchings , write Neil Tweedie and Peter Dominiczak.

3. Why we all love Attenborough  (Independent)

There are people in whose company, because of a million tiny signals, we quickly feel at ease; I would submit that Attenborough has that effect on the whole nation, says Michael McCarthy.

4. This nasty virus could kill off press freedom (Times) (£)

Lord Puttnam has led a sneak attack to sabotage the Defamation Bill and get statutory regulation by the back door, says Matthew Parris.

5. Europe can walk as well as talk  (Financial Times)

A week of hard-won bargains shows the EU is working, says this FT editorial.

6. Whoever wins in Eastleigh, the coalition will lose  (Guardian)

The Eastleigh byelection will highlight the fact that there is no way of knowing if the public support the coalition, says Vernon Bogdanor.

7. Stafford scandal: Let’s face the truth about our uncaring, selfish and cruel NHS  (Daily Telegraph)

We don’t want any Mid Staffs 'scapegoats’ – just the people who are actually to blame, says Charles Moore.

8. RIP landline, you’ll cold-call me no longer (Times)

We’ve got e-mail, G-chat, Twitter and text. The curly-tailed monster in the hallway has had its day, writes Janice Turner.

9. The Wizard of Oz: Cameron's controversial campaign strategist grants a rare interview  (Independent)

Since Lynton Crosby was named as David Cameron's new campaign expert last autumn, speculation has been rife as to what his methods will do for British politics. Paola Totaro is granted a rare interview with the man Boris Johnson (a client) calls the Wizard of Oz.

The prime minister must confront his party with the truth, says the FT.

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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.