It is quite unusual to be the support act at your own coronation, but that is what happened to the new Ukip leader on 28 November. As Paul Nuttall gave his victory speech, photographers snapped away – at his predecessor Nigel Farage.
Earlier, Donald Trump’s new best friend had shown no sign of retiring gracefully. Farage took credit for the US election, claiming that Ukip had shifted the international “centre of political gravity”, and boasted what a great year 2016 had been.
Farage’s zombie-like persistence is not the only worry for Ukip’s incoming leader. Just 9,622 people voted for Nuttall. That was almost 7,000 more than for his nearest rival, Suzanne Evans, but it represents a pitifully small membership base compared to Labour or the SNP. (In the 2015 general election Nuttall stood in his native Bootle, on Merseyside, where he won 10.9 per cent of the vote.)
The party’s future funding will also be an issue. The big spender Arron Banks favoured another candidate, Raheem Kassam, who withdrew before polling day. And for all that Ukip might rail against the EU gravy train, the party depends on it. Many of their key lieutenants’ main source of income is the €8,000 a month that they receive as MEPs.
Nuttall inherits a fractured party. The self-described “unity candidate” must now manage the egos of Farage (who has vowed not to be a “backseat driver”) as well as Ukip’s only MP, Douglas Carswell, an ally of his rival Suzanne Evans.
Nuttall’s political views are, unsurprisingly, hardline. He has questioned the “credibility and motivation of scientists on board the global warming wagon” and once wrote a blog (now deleted) arguing that the “very existence of the NHS stifles competition . . . [which] drives quality and choice”. He supports the death penalty for child and serial killers, and would like the burqa to be banned from public buildings.
He has contributed frequently to Breitbart, the news website and house journal of the “alt right”, on which he has argued that there is “an unholy alliance of the left and Muslim community”. He said the UK should accept more refugees, but only if they are rehoused in “Hampstead, Crouch End and Notting Hill, or to be even more prescriptive, slap bang in the centre of luvvie land”, to annoy celebrities such as Benedict Cumberbatch who have called for a more humane approach.
Nuttall is a keen proponent of women’s rights – when it suits him. Born into a Catholic family, the 40-year-old supports restrictions on abortion and opposes sex education for primary-school children. Like many on the far right, he has made a show of decrying the “silence” of feminists over the sexual assaults in Cologne, Germany, at the end of 2015, and the sex abuse cases in Rotherham, South Yorkshire. (He has far less to say about male violence when the perpetrators are white.) He has also called for those with HIV to be banned from the UK and warned that our open borders could lead to an outbreak of ebola.
David Renton – an Old Etonian barrister and former member of the Socialist Workers Party who taught him history at Edge Hill College in 1999 – told me that he always had the sense that, even at 23, Nuttall was testing the limits of acceptable speech. According to Renton, in an essay on the causes of the Holocaust, Nuttall worked in two footnotes to books by David Irving. “I wasn’t expecting this, because Irving wasn’t on the course reading list,” Renton says now. “This was after his libel trial, and historians regarded Irving as an unpleasant, racist crank who was beyond the pale.”
Renton says that when he raised it, Nuttall blamed his girlfriend, who he claimed had taken the references from the internet. “I didn’t want to think the worst of him. He had attended at least one left-wing meeting at the college and, perhaps naively, I thought his ideas were in flux and I was willing to accept his denial.” Yet the incident left him uneasy.
True to form as a scourge of political correctness, Nuttall hasn’t worried about diversity in his top team: he named Peter Whittle, a Ukip member of the London Assembly, as his deputy, and Paul Oakden remains party chairman.
His acceptance speech was an indication of what he regards as the low-hanging electoral fruit for his party: white, working-class voters in the north of England. “I want to replace the Labour Party and make Ukip the patriotic voice of the working people,” he said. Unlike the “north London Islington set”, he will not talk about climate change or Palestine: such issues don’t affect “real working people”.
His boldness has many in Labour worried. Dan Jarvis, the MP for Barnsley Central, has said: “The Ukip fox is in the Labour henhouse.” Before the 2015 election a Fabian Society pamphlet warned that Ukip was as much a threat in Labour seats such as Great Grimsby and Dudley North as in such higher-profile Tory targets as South Thanet. Labour responded to his appointment by accusing him of wanting to privatise the NHS.
Nuttall’s success depends on three factors: how much money he can raise, how the Brexit negotiations pan out – and whether Farage can bear to surrender the limelight.
This article appears in the 30 Nov 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage