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18 February 2017updated 08 Sep 2021 8:31am

Inside a Ukip conference obsessed with Stoke

Now that Brexit has been achieved, the party of protest is focused on a by-election. 

By Kirstie mccrum

On the roundabout outside the Bolton Macron stadium – the venue for the Ukip spring conference – a sheet was hastily draped. Daubed in black paint, it read “Bad Bootle bullshitter”.

The unknown critic was commenting on the recent travails of leader Paul Nuttall, who is standing for the party in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election, but whose campaign has been clouded by questions over his claims about the Hillsborough football tragedy

At conference, Nuttall kept away from the press. He had also cancelled a hustings appearance the day before.

But while many on the outside see Ukip as increasingly directionless, from the inside it’s a little different. 

The thrum of enthusiasm which ran through the attendees at the stadium was palpable. The Lightning Seeds’ Marvellous – with lyrics promising “Things could be marvellous, things could be fabulous too” – was on a constant loop. Party stars like Suzanne Evans and Patrick O’Flynn rubbed shoulders with the rank and file.

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From the start of the morning, the press were shunted upstairs to a media room. But while Nuttall was mysteriously hard to find for media interviews, those who support him were only too happy to share their strong beliefs in what the brand still stands for – even after the vote which was meant to be their raison d’être.

In the ladies’, a neat, petite woman with perfectly coiffed grey hair was fixing her scarf in front of the mirror. It was patterned in Ukip purple, to match her lilac top.

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“I just love conference,” she told me. She was one of the minority of female attendees I saw during the day in a throng of besuited men of a certain age. The programme and speakers went out of their way to refer to all spokespeople as “spokesmen”, despite gender.

When Nuttall took to the stage – to, among other things, offer his mea culpa for erroneous website details – he got a rousing reception to match that of  Nigel Farage. 

The former leader is still a favourite. I caught up with two audience members following his speech, and they were positively glowing.

“He pointed out every single thing that Ukip is about and brought it up to the present. He says it as it is,” Marie Foy told me.

She comes from an old Labour family, but says the party is “no longer working for us”. 

Her friend, Mick Harold, interpreted it as a case for ongoing radicalism: “What was important was the fact that he said we cannot move to the centre. Because if we move to the centre, then we just become like all of the other parties and we become pointless.

“We have to keep pushing our agenda. We’ve got to be different or there’s no point in us being there. That, for me, is the message that sticks in my mind from Nigel today.”

The idea of remaining radical and yet pertinent is a big one for party members.

Foy and Harold are both Ukip activists, who have spent recent weeks campaigning in Stoke. Harold knows the area particularly well – he came second to outgoing Labour MP Tristram Hunt in the 2015 election, who beat him by just 5,719 votes. 

“The radical ideas of Ukip are what resonates with the working people of this country,” Harold said. “We don’t want the Labour party, we don’t want the Conservatives. We want something different. We want change, and that’s why Ukip have been so successful.” Like Foy, he too is a former Labour supporter. 

“There are certain parts of Stoke now which are probably 50 per cent Ukip,” he said. “The old Labour areas, the old council estates, they’re definitely moving over to Ukip.”

It may be the talk of the Ukip bubble, especially now Nuttall is on the defence. But with the by-election only days away, it won’t take long to find out.