Paul Nuttall is now the favourite to win the leadership of UKIP
It is a habit of almost all small parties, even the most successful ones, to rely almost entirely on the presence of a single dominant figure. Take the Green Party as an example, where Caroline Lucas is back in the leader’s office after Natalie Bennett’s disastrous single term at the helm. Ms Lucas initially stepped down as leader in 2012 in order to ‘raise the profile of others’ within the party, but after four years of pursuing that strategy the environmentalist outfit decided that, if it is to compete with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party for the left-wing vote, it needs to return to the stewardship of its widely-respected former leader.
At the other end of the political spectrum, UKIP has had similar trouble emerging from the shadow of Nigel Farage’s successful but controversial leadership. Mr Farage attracted scorn last year when he ‘unresigned’ just days after announcing his departure, and although he was believed to be gone for good following his triumph at this summer’s EU referendum, he is now back yet again after his successor, Diane James, lasted just eighteen days. Farage insists that he will not be a candidate in the upcoming leadership election, but no matter what happens, one can be certain that he will continue to loom large over UKIP’s internal politics.
In many ways, Farage’s UKIP has been a victim of its own success. Since 2014, the party has won a European election, received the third-highest number of votes in a general election, and successfully helped to guide Britain out of the European Union against all the odds and in the face of strong opposition from the political establishment. All of these are great achievements which make UKIP the most successful minor party in modern British politics, but they have come at a cost; with all its wishes having been granted, the party now has to decide what its purpose will be in a Britain that is free from the shackles of the EU.
It is to Nigel Farage’s credit that UKIP has shed its previous reputation as a single-issue party under his stewardship, expanding beyond their laser-like opposition to the EU in order to develop a wider political platform. However, in seeking to transform UKIP into a populist tribune of the white working-classes, Farage has sailed close to the wind and alienated many within his party who object to his scaremongering rhetoric about immigration. UKIP’s survival will depend on its ability to retain its working-class support base, but it must also prevent itself from sliding into the ugly cesspit of far-right xenophobia; after all, no such party has ever enjoyed long-term success in this country.
With Farage out of the race, there are three main candidates to succeed him at the helm of UKIP – deputy leader Paul Nuttall, former deputy chairman Suzanne Evans, and Farage’s former chief of staff Raheem Kassam – all of whom represent very different factions of this bitterly divided party. If members are looking for a clear break from the past, Ms Evans is the candidate who offers the sharpest contrast with the populism of Nigel Farage. A former Conservative councillor, she has become one of Farage’s strongest critics within the party, a fact which led to her being suspended from UKIP earlier this year. Since launching her campaign, Evans has called for the party to moderate its ‘toxic’ image and to reject the politics of the far-right, statements which have caused Nigel Farage to declare that he will not be supporting her candidacy.
If Suzanne Evans is the candidate of UKIP’s more measured and moderate wing, Raheem Kassam is the complete opposite. Pugnacious, outspoken and frequently offensive, Mr Kassam embodies the ‘far-right’ politics that Ms Evans seeks to reject. After a prominent spell in the student wing of the Conservative Party, he joined UKIP in 2013 and soon entered Farage’s inner circle of advisors whilst also becoming the UK editor of Breitbart News, a controversial US-based news website and self-proclaimed ‘platform for the alt-right.’ With his links to the American Tea Party movement and strong support for the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, Kassam is a divisive figure who would continue to move UKIP further away from the political mainstream; indeed, even his campaign slogan – ‘Make UKIP Great Again’ – directly apes the rhetoric of his idol Mr Trump.
Neither of these candidates have what it takes to rebuild UKIP and make it a viable force in post-Brexit Britain. Although Ms Evans is undeniably talented and a strong media performer, she is far too middle-class and Southern to solidify the party’s base, whilst her status as a figurehead of the anti-Farage movement could cause an irreconcilable split. Likewise, Mr Kassam’s sharp tongue and extremist politics would damage the party’s attempts to regain a degree of respectability, driving it towards the darkest fringes of the political landscape in a country that has little desire for a tub-thumping rabble rouser in the mould of Donald Trump. However, all is not lost for UKIP; amongst its field of candidates lies a man who has the potential to bring the party back from the brink and position it as a formidable force once again.
For years, Paul Nuttall has served as Nigel Farage’s loyal deputy, and although the charismatic Farage deserves praise for UKIP’s recent fortunes he has been executing a strategy that was largely proposed by Mr Nuttall. After all, it was Paul Nuttall who first suggested expanding UKIP’s focus beyond right-wing ex-Tories, appealing to traditional Labour voters in the Midlands and the North who felt disillusioned with the metropolitan trends within the Labour Party. He therefore played an instrumental role in cultivating UKIP’s working-class base, and as leader he would be well-equipped to retain it.
Having been born and raised in Merseyside, an area he now represents in the European Parliament, Nuttall is a far more authentic voice of the people than the privately educated former City trader Nigel Farage. Likewise, Nuttall’s candidacy prevents this race from being a public airing of grievances between Farage’s critics and his committed loyalists. Despite serving alongside Farage for the best part of a decade, Nuttall is not blindly loyal to the former leader and is rumoured to have fallen out with the most dedicated members of Farage’s inner circle, whilst in an article last week he called on the party to unite as a ‘big tent in which talents are utilised, not marginalised.’ In a race dominated by hard-headed veterans of UKIP’s partisan battles, Mr Nuttall is exactly the man to bring the party together again.
Under Paul Nuttall, UKIP could pose a serious threat to the Labour Party, appealing to those voters in the North, the Midlands and elsewhere who pulled the lever for Brexit, and in doing so rejected Labour’s official support for continued EU membership. Such voters will want a party that can hold the government to account and ensure that Britain receives a Brexit deal that serves the national interest and delivers on the promises of the Leave campaign; in Paul Nuttall, UKIP may have found a man to do just that, and in doing so bring the party out from its post-referendum abyss into a new era.