It would be very easy for politicians and commentators to smugly ignore the UKIP leadership election result that was announced this week. The victor, Paul Nuttall, is the third person to lead UKIP in the last three months, and, with numerous reports that the Party is experiencing something approaching an internal crisis, jokes have already been circulating about whether he too will end up on the UKIP scrap heap before too long.
To do this however, would be a grave mistake. Despite the chaos of the last few months of UKIP – the resignations, the hospitalisations, and the possible emigration to the US in the case of Nigel Farage – they have emerged from the mess with a man in charge who has a potential path to electoral success.
Nuttall is a witty, combative, “says-it-like-it-is” scouser, who unlike Nigel Farage comes from a working class background and was state educated. He has been a frequent spokesperson for UKIP in the past, appearing on the radio and BBC Question Time and performing very well. He models himself as a pragmatic patriot lobbying for what he calls “a real Brexit.” He won’t appeal to the champagne socialists of Islington and Hampstead, but he might well appeal to the working class communities of Hull and Lancashire. He is the Anti-Corbyn, with the ideal personality and background to hoover up the working class voters the Labour leader has lost touch with.
There is a long way to go for Nuttall of course, and there are certainly plenty of sticks his opponents can beat him with. He has made comments about the “monolithic” NHS in the past and hinted that he’d like to see it privatised. He has controversial views on gay rights and has referred to global warming as a “hair brained theory.” Then there are the problems with UKIP itself, which some are seeing as an increasingly purposeless and out-of-date outfit. There are certainly many challenges Nuttall will have to overcome before UKIP can really replace labour in the North.
The first evidence of how UKIP will fair under Nuttall will come in Sleaford, where a by-election is due to be held next week. In 2015, UKIP came third, narrowly behind Labour. Overtaking Labour would be a big statement of intent and perhaps a sign that the purple army are marching back.