Ukip leader Paul Nuttall pleaded with his activists to hold their nerves and “keep the faith” as the party launched its local election campaign in Kent with a frank admission it has been suffering a post-Brexit referendum slump and came to collapse last year.
Addressing councillors in the Ukip heartland of Thanet, Nuttall acknowledged it had been “our most difficult year” but urged his supporters to have confidence that politics would return to its territory when Theresa May’s honeymoon period is over.
“Keep the faith in our party. We are going places,” he urged a small audience of party activists at the Walpole Bay Hotel in Margate. “The post-Brexit party is going to be bigger than the pre-Brexit Ukip. We knew this year, regardless of who the leader was, was going to be our most difficult year. But trust me, don’t worry, things will come back to our turf. Hold your nerve.”
He delivered the low-key campaign launch speech amid predictions that Ukip will lose councillors at the local elections on 4 May as its vote is squeezed by pro-Brexit voters turning to the Conservatives. In a sign of its weakened state, Ukip has only managed to find candidates to stand in 48% of seats, compared with 73% at the last comparable election four years ago.
Paul Oakden, the party’s interim chairman, went on to admit how bad things had got for the party last year, revealing that it was close to failure and had to be bailed out by veteran Ukip donor Alan Bown, a former bookmaker who owns a property portfolio.
“I remember all too well how difficult things were at the end of last year and how close we came to falling off the perch,” he said. “As I say, at our most difficult period, when things really did look on the edge, we had no leader, we had an NEC [national executive committee] facing challenges and MEPs challenging each other … We do have a real hero of the party, who kept this party going, and last year kept this party on the tracks. That is Alan Bown.
“There are many people who can say they contributed their part but I can absolutely tell you that without that man this party would not be here today.”
The party has had a turbulent year, losing a string of its senior figures as Ukip struggled to hold itself together following the departure of Nigel Farage as leader. Douglas Carswell, its only MP, quit to go independent, followed by Mark Reckless, another former Tory defector, who left the Ukip Welsh assembly group to ally with his old party.
Diane James, another senior Ukip figure, lasted only 18 days as party leader before quitting and then leaving the party, while the favourite to succeed her, Steven Woolfe, had to withdraw from the contest and then quit the party after getting involved in a brawl with another MEP in the European parliament.
Following Nuttall’s election, the new leader subsequently suffered a bruising campaign to become the new MP for Stoke-on-Trent in a byelection as parts of his CV were questioned and he admitted a claim on his website to have lost close friends at at the Hillsborough tragedy had been wrong.
On top of that, Arron Banks, the major donor and close ally of Farage, withdrew his backing for the party and announced he would be setting up a new direct democracy movement that could prove a rival for Ukip’s support base.
Following such unstable times, Nuttall said his goal was to make sure the party “stays on the pitch” ready for the moment when the wheels come off May’s plan for Brexit.
He pledged that under his leadership, the party will “go through some changes, many changes” over the summer, including a new structure, new written constitution and a rebrand.
“I think it needs to look more modern, cleaner and for a Ukip in the post-Brexit era,” he said.
Making clear there would be no softening of the party’s line on immigration, the Ukip leader pledged to keep Farage’s proposal for a 50,000 cap on new arrivals per year and put stricter law and order at the heart of his post-Brexit policy offering.
“We will be the only party that is committed to reducing immigration back to 30,000 to 50,000 a year, like it was in the sensible years from the second world war to 1997 when Tony Blair and his cowboys opened up the floodgates,” he said.
In another hardening of Ukip’s rhetoric, Nuttall also signalled he would be speaking more about opposing elements of Islam, using his speech to attack Sharia law, and the idea that women should be “forced to live life hidden behind a veil”.
He has already moved in this direction by appointing Gerard Batten, a London MEP known for his attacks on Islam, as his Brexit spokesman. Batten responded to last month’s terror attack on Westminster by saying “normal non Mohammedans should have a perfectly rational fear of Islam”.
“The terrorists are the van-guard of Mohammedanism. They set out to cow the non-Mohammedan population, so that the ‘moderate Muslims’ can get on establishing Sharia courts, forcing halal food in school and works canteens, and making the authorities look the other way regarding criminal activities for fear of being called racist and Islamophobic,” Batten wrote on his website.