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Coffee House General Election 2017

Paul Nuttall scrambles for purpose in his interview with Andrew Neil

29 May 2017

8:33 PM

29 May 2017

8:33 PM

If Ukip’s vote really does hit the floor come June 8th, the party’s leader won’t be granted a coveted prime-time slot on BBC One to make their mark. Thanks to Ukip’s past success, Paul Nuttall did get that opportunity tonight. But the Ukip leader’s plan did not fare well for coming under the scrutiny of Andrew Neil.

On Brexit, it’s a point widely made that Ukip is a victim of the referendum result. In his interview tonight, Nuttall made it clear that the best the party can offer for the time being is an insurance policy that he hopes won’t be needed. The Ukip leader told Andrew Neil that he wants Theresa May to succeed – and yet by Nuttall’s own reckoning, he needs the PM to fail. Nuttall said that if the PM ‘does backslide’, his prediction is that ‘Ukip by the end of 2018 could be bigger than it ever has been before’. Of course, Nuttall has a point here: if Brexit doesn’t mean Brexit, Ukip could easily regain its purpose and once again be a thorn in the Tories’ side. But the party’s problem is that, for the time being, it has nothing to offer voters who are willing to give Theresa May the benefit of the doubt – a lukewarm pitch to voters considering backing Ukip in ten days’ time.

Given that the party is playing a waiting game for now, Ukip is clearly scrambling for meaning in other areas. Ukip’s burka ban sums up this desperation: tonight, Nuttall tried to defend this policy on the basis that it would prevent crime, encourage integration, allow wearers to communicate better – and also ensure that people can get their daily dose of Vitamin D. Unsurprisingly, Nuttall didn’t sound convincing on any of those points and it’s difficult to escape the view that a burka ban was just a headline-grabbing policy with little purpose beyond winning Ukip some much-needed attention.

Nuttall also struggled to stay on message during his interview and appeared willing to step beyond his party’s own policy – advocating carrying out capital punishment himself (while assuring viewers that ‘I don’t want to be Albert Pierrepoint’) and also backing waterboarding, even though, as Nuttall admitted to Andrew Neil, it wasn’t ‘party policy’. Primetime TV slots don’t come around often, and for a party leader to spend time defending a policy which isn’t in the manifesto is unhelpful at best.

In the run-up to tonight’s interview, some were predicting that Nuttall’s performance would be disastrous. It didn’t work out that way and the Ukip leader seemed relaxed and likeable throughout. But that won’t be enough. The party’s election plan struggled under scrutiny and it’s difficult to see how Nuttall’s pitch will have won many wavering voters over.

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