The cult of Nigel Farage has underpinned Ukip’s rise. Farage has been, with a year’s hiatus, leader for almost nine years. But for how much longer? He has previously said that, if Ed Miliband becomes prime minister – which the bookmakers still make the most likely outcome – he will have “failed”. Even if that doesn’t happen, the aftermath of a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union would, Ukip insiders say, be a logical time for Farage to stand-down.
So the question of who will replace him as Ukip leader is a pertinent one. Indeed, it sounds like the jostling has already begun. “Could I lead Ukip? Yeah I think I could lead Ukip and I think I could lead Ukip well.” So Paul Nuttall, the party’s deputy leader, tells me while we meet over three pints in a pub by St Pancras Station. The would-be new leader is upholding the best traditions of his boss.
Yet in other ways Nuttall is the antithesis of Farage. He is comprehensive-educated and from a working-class family of Labour supporters in Bootle, a dockyard town next to Liverpool. Bald and with an avuncular air, it seems remarkable that he is only 38. Nuttall has served as deputy to his friend Farage since 2010.
“I wouldn’t be anyone else’s deputy, put it that way,” he says. Nuttall “had the chance of leading Ukip twice before – I was too young and that’s one of the reasons why I backed away” but now thinks that he would be ready for the role. “I’m pretty experienced now. In terms of frontline politics I think there’s only Nigel who’s got more experience in Ukip than me.”
That experience includes being lampooned by the media. The comedian Stewart Lee mocked “Paul Nuttall from the Ukips”, likening Nuttall’s assertion that the brightest Bulgarians should return home to the idea that matter should return to where it came from, preventing the formation of existence itself. “I’ve never seen it,” Nuttall says. “I better had watch it actually. But my argument was absolutely sound.”
One consequence of Britain leaving the EU would be to make life much harder for British pensioners who retire abroad in Europe. Anyone receiving a British state pension has access to free healthcare in Spain, and Nuttall accepts, “If we expect people to have private health insurance when they come into this country I don’t see why it would be different elsewhere.” This could be bad news for retired expats – anyone receiving a British state pension has access to free healthcare in Spain, for instance. “I don’t think that there would be a problem with British pensioners in Spain taking up private health insurance,” Nuttall says.
Last May, Nuttall was attacked for his views on the NHS, after writing that “the very existence of the NHS stifles competition”. When I ask him about these views, Nuttall has backtracked a little. “As we get into the twenty-first century with the price of drugs increasing, with an ageing population, we may well have to have some sort of discussion about how we fund healthcare in this country, but I don’t think we’ve reached that point yet,” he says. But on NHS procurement, Nuttall maintains, “It might be better if you brought in a private company who you could hire and fire on results if they weren’t getting bang for the buck of the British people.” Inconsistency with Ukip official policy, which now opposes all use of private finance initiatives, is easy to detect.
But more controversial than Nuttall’s views on the NHS are his attitudes on law and order and social issues. He supports reintroducing the death penalty for child murderers, serial killers and those who murder police officers. Raised a Catholic, though he is says he is not a churchgoer, Nuttall also favours abortion being limited to the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy. “I feel very uncomfortable when I look at the figures and see that a city the size of Nottingham is aborted every year.”
Besides being called out by Lee, Nuttall is best known as the architect of Ukip’s “Northern strategy”. While the party was formed in 1993, it took Ukip almost 20 years to shake-off its image as a single-issue party.
“If the party wanted to make progress, it had got to stop banging on about the European Union,” Nuttall explains. When he became party chairman in 2008, he observed that: “People weren’t taking local elections seriously, particularly the older generation of members. It was sort of ‘Well why do I want to be a councillor? How is being a councillor going to help us get out of the European Union?’”
But Nuttall took a very different view. “I always thought that if you want to get into Westminster, which has obviously got to be the end game, you’re only going to do that through pavement politics and getting people elected onto local councils,” he says. The party has headed his advice since 2010 and, though it gained two MPs last year, it was a narrow defeat that Nuttall found particularly vindicating. In the Heywood and Middleton by-election, regarded as a Labour fiefdom, Ukip cut Labour’s majority to just 617 votes.
“We’ve kept open our shop in Heywood and Middleton because it will be a target seat in the general election. The one thing we’re finding is people are coming in all the time and saying ‘if we knew you were going to get that close we would have voted for you’,” he claims. In this by-election result, Nuttall saw the future of Ukip. “The one thing that I am very passionate about is we do get more northern voices out there,” he says. “Ed Miliband has helped us a lot. People look at him in the north and think ‘you’ve got absolutely nothing in common with me’.”
While Nuttall’s close family are Ukip converts, he admits that Labour still retain a strong reservoir of support in Bootle and beyond. “I don’t know whether it’s because they believe in Labour’s policies or whether it’s just a tribal instinct,” he says. “I really am bamboozled as to why people in working class communities can go out and vote for a party that doesn’t just not represent them but seems detached from their attitudes and values and aspirations.”
“The Labour Party are definitely far too London-centric and the Conservative Party are too. We should be the antithesis of that – the party that represents the rest of the country and not just those within the M25.” Rob Ford, an expert on Ukip, believes that a high profile for Nuttall could aid the party’s prospects in the north and “could help the party connect with voters who already sympathise with its image and positions, but may still harbour suspicions about its part and present links to the hated Tories”.
While Nuttall welcomes the defections of two former Conservative MPs, he admits that too many of these could make it harder for Ukip in Labour strongholds. He says that there “would have to be a limit on the number of defections” from Tories to prove that Ukip is “not is a kind of Conservative Party in exile”. It almost amounts to a pitch advocating that Nuttall – and not the Charterhouse educated former Conservative MP Douglas Carswell – should succeed Farage as leader.
“It might be good for politics in this country to have someone who lives and breathes real life with real working people and understands their trials and tribulations,” Nuttall says. “When we get our people elected in May, people who haven’t defected from another political party, I think what you’ll find is a far more diverse group of people.”
But Nuttall is adamant that the 2015 general election does not represent an endgame for Ukip, but merely the election when they “crack the dam”.
“This must be a long-term political project that will change British politics forever. Particularly in the north, I think 2020 will be the election when we make big, big gains,” he asserts. By then, Nuttall could be in a position to claim them.