Ukip’s success in pursuing the Tories over Brexit will be remembered for a long time. Now, the party thinks it has a new bone of contention with which to go after the government: keeping Britain safe.
In the wake of Monday’s night’s attack, Ukip wants to paint itself as the only party serious about rooting out Islamic fundamentalism and tackling terrorism. As if to make that point, while the Tory and Labour national campaigns remained suspended this morning, Ukip pressed ahead with its manifesto launch today. Nuttall came under pressure at the event over this decision, and was asked repeatedly whether he was trying to capitalise on the attack by focusing so squarely on the terror threat. The party’s leader insisted that wasn’t the case – pointing out that the manifesto had already been printed on Saturday, before the attack. But those questions from journalists did not go down well with Ukip members attending the event: the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg was told to ‘crawl back down your hole’. While a scrum of Ukip members gathered around Channel 4’s Michael Crick at the end to vent their frustration at the media.
For all the support among those Ukip voters at the launch, it’s vital that the party’s dwindling wider pool of voters don’t think the party is trying to use this week’s events to make a political point. For Nuttall, a Ukip leader who is on the ropes, that possibility seems to be a risk worth taking: he made much of his track record on speaking out against extremism and repeated his point that radical Islam was a ‘cancer’. Nuttall then went on to suggest that his comments on fundamentalism in the wake of the Westminster attack had not gone down well with some. Just as when David Cameron called Ukip a party of ‘fruitcakes, loons and closet racists’, Ukip does best when it is being dismissed or mocked. But this attempt to emulate his predecessor Nigel Farage remains a dangerous one for Nuttall.
One thing is clear though: Ukip is certainly doing its best to undermine Theresa May’s reputation as the candidate to trust on security. The party announced today that it would pay for 20,000 more troops; 20,000 more police officers; 4,000 more border guards; and 7,000 extra prison officers. Nuttall also attacked May’s record for being a part of a government which cut police funding. The PM is vulnerable here. But there’s a sense that Suzanne Evans’s suggestion that May bears some responsibility for the Manchester attack as a result of her time as Home Secretary might be a step too far.
Even if this isn’t seen by voters as an attempt to weaponise the issue of terrorism though, the party has its work cut out if it is to win over voters on this territory: four times as many people trust May on defence than they do Jeremy Corbyn. And while Ukip is promising to put its money where its mouth is on defending Britain, it has the problem of whether voters could really envisage these policies seeing the light of day given the party’s plunging support in the polls.
Of course, the big reason for Ukip’s difficulties is Brexit. Nuttall said the party would act as an insurance policy on leaving the EU. If Theresa May does backslide, that could end up proving a winning pitch to the electorate. But for as long as voters trust May when she says ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – and it seems that they do – then a redundant insurance policy will do little to encourage voters to back Ukip in two weeks’ time. What’s more, given that the party is not standing in a number of seats to give some Tory candidates an easy ride, the claim that it will hold the government’s feet to the fire doesn’t sound realistic. It also makes Suzanne Evans’ point today that ‘nothing will change’ if May wins a landslide sound as if the party is doing little to stop that looming inevitability.
One area where Ukip is clearly shaping up for a fight here is over Britain’s divorce bill. The party said one of its key Brexit tests was that no divorce bill should be paid out. If a payment is made, this could give Ukip a handy tool for attacking the Tories somewhere down the line but it’s difficult to see how this will help the party in 14 days’ time.
As well as Brexit, the party also has an image problem. The heckling of journalists today won’t have helped. But nor is Ukip’s manifesto wholly useful in trying to win over the average voter. The party’s blueprint for Britain says that face coverings will be banned, but includes a picture of a beekeeper (who, it is thought, might have something to say about this new law) in its manifesto. The party also justifies its burka ban with the somewhat woolly excuse that it ‘prevents intake of essential vitamin D from sunlight’. More seriously, the decision to raise the inheritance tax threshold for married couples up to a £1m will do little to woo wavering Labour voters.
Paul Nuttall said this morning that without Ukip in power ‘things are only going to get worse’. But it’s difficult to see that he isn’t talking about the party’s prospects at the ballot box come June 8th.