The first test of Ukip’s electoral potency under its new leader, Paul Nuttall, comes in the Copeland by-election, following the unexpected decision of Jamie Reed to stand down from Parliament.
Despite voting for Brexit by 62/38 per cent, the West Cumbrian seat doesn’t feel a natural prospect for the kippers. Certainly when compared to parts of Lancashire, Merseyside and Greater Manchester. Remote and politically tribal, Copeland feels like a straight Labour/Tory face-off.
Having polled extremely well in the Heywood and Middleton by-election in October 2014, coming within 600 votes of beating Labour, Ukip has very publicly struggled to assemble a decent ground game and lacks campaigning apparatus and experience when it matters most.
Other by-elections in Wythenshawe and Sale East in February 2014 and Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough in May 2016 have revealed this telling weakness, with underwhelming Ukip performances in seats where they should have pressed much harder.
Anyway, the party is under new management and needs to show momentum in the post-Brexit and post-Farage era.
Nuttall, an MEP for the North West, knows this and will be looking for a decent showing in the Leigh and Liverpool Walton by-elections that will follow May’s election of Andy Burnham and Steve Rotheram to the new metro mayoralties in, respectively, Greater Manchester and Merseyside.
Liverpool’s Labour party is well-organised for such a fight and the city was one of the few Labour heartlands to vote Remain (58/42 per cent). But it’s academic: Walton is Labour’s safest parliamentary seat in the country, with a gigantic 27,777 majority and 81 per cent of the vote.
Although Labour had a 14,096 majority in 2015, Leigh has suffered a precipitous decline from its heyday as a mining and textiles town and it’s exactly the type of working-class seat where the kippers hope they can break through.
Indeed, Nuttall is said to be mulling a run as the candidate himself.
The reason he initially decided against challenging for the Ukip leadership was because he wanted to focus on winning a parliamentary seat himself. He knows the stakes are high and a strong performance is essential to maintain Ukip as a brooding threat in Labour’s backyard, his professed electoral strategy.
But he’ll get no joy in Leigh either. There are no Ukip councillors for a start, while Burnham is popular locally and his (slightly) controversial speech castigating free movement the other week, was an early attempt to head off Ukip’s appeal on the issue. Moreover, Leigh has only had four MPs since 1923 – all Labour. The seat will remain loyal.
Expect to hear Nuttall hedging his bets about standing in Leigh until the kippers get the lie of the land.
Then, when they do, he’ll pretend he was never going for it.