Paul Nuttall has won the race to replace Nigel Farage as Ukip leader. Nuttall’s victory was decisive: he picked up 62.6 per cent of the vote, compared to Suzanne Evans on 19.3 per cent and John Rees-Evans on 18.1 per cent. For Nuttall, the hard work starts now. His win today puts an end to the party’s second leadership contest in five months, following Diane James’s short-lived 18-day reign. He inherits a party in a troubled state – and he admitted as much in his leadership speech. ‘Today is the day we put the Ukip jigsaw back together,’ he said. And while Nuttall was keen to continue the unity message he parroted during his campaign, he also fired a warning at those within Ukip who want to carry on fighting. ‘For those who don’t want to come together, I’m afraid your time in Ukip is coming to an end,’ Nuttall said.
The prize for Ukip – if Nuttall does succeed in steadying the ship – is a big one. In his acceptance speech, Nuttall vowed to hold the Prime Minister to account on her repeated refrain about Brexit meaning Brexit. At the moment, Theresa May has offered a forceful message on delivering Brexit. And many voters seem willing to give the PM the benefit of the doubt. But things could change rapidly, and a delay in triggering Article 50 – and the appearance that May’s Brexit timeline isn’t on track – could offer an opportunity for Ukip to capitalise by presenting May as a prevaricator.
Elsewhere, Labour’s current woes also offer an opportunity for Ukip. Disaffected Labour voters are unlikely to be reassured by Diane Abbott’s appointment as shadow immigration minister. Nor are they likely to find much comfort in her message that immigration isn’t a problem. What’s more, Paul Nuttall – the party’s MEP for the north west of England – is in a good position to try and snatch disaffected Labour voters away from Labour.
Of course, even the most ardent Ukipper would find it difficult to deny the party isn’t in dire straits itself. A fractious autumn for the party has not helped Ukip expand its support base. While the party is also facing financial trouble, having fallen behind the BNP in the most recent statistics for party donations. There is also an existential problem: if May delivers on Brexit, the party could find it difficult to spell out clearly what it stands for. All of this means on day one – or ‘day zero’, as Nuttall said in his speech – that there’s a big to-do list for the new Ukip leader and his deputy Peter Whittle. As Nigel Farage said as he handed over to Nuttall: ‘the need for Ukip to be strong in the future is absolutely vital’. Whether the party takes that message seriously enough, manages to successfully move on from Nigel and put its troubles behind it will prove crucial in determining whether Ukip really does have a future.