Paul Nuttall is off to Bolton tomorrow to rally the Ukip troops at their spring conference, after a rough few days on the campaign trail in the “ Brexit capital” of Stoke-on-Trent. He has been forced on the back foot over the last few days by reports raising doubts over whether he was at the Hillsborough disaster and how close his friends he lost at the tragedy were to him. Labour thinks it has has scented blood, insisting that he has “questions to answer”.
This furore could not have come at a worse time for Mr Nuttall, as he hopes to convince Stoke to make him their first Ukip MP, after a lifetime of Labour representation, next Thursday. The by-election seemed at first to be his to lose. Most constituents – around 70 per cent – voted for Brexit, something his Labour rival Gareth Snell vehemently opposes. The majority of them are working-class, a demographic that now – polls say – is more partial to Ukip than Labour. So is his campaign doomed? Those hoping so, as I wrote online, are assuming that Stoke residents are just as fascinated by the press releases he has put out over the last few years as the Twitterverse. Many will have little interest in the #AskPaulNuttall jokes, and recent history suggests they will be just as engaged in the by-election itself.
Voters in Stoke are less likely to turn out to the polls than the average Briton, and so many will have tuned out and view such reports as just noise. “It’s not going to make a blind bit of difference on the doorstep,” one Ukip official told me. But the flip-side is that voters won’t be so outraged by Labour candidate’s controversial tweets, which has put some Ukippers on edge. “Gareth Snell is such an awful candidate,” one source lamented to me. “But I wonder if Stoke realises how awful he is?”
The final week of the by-election will see both sides hammer home their key messages. They’ll try to keep the rows about controversial tweets and press releases going, but know there will be some residents who will be hard to interest. They’re the group that won’t answer the door to canvassers, so campaigners will struggle to determine how they will vote. They won’t be so interested by the campaign coverage, but will have their own concerns. These people, Stoke’s silent voters, have Mr Nuttall’s fate in their hands.
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