Katy Balls Katy Balls

Paul Nuttall tries to manage expectations in Stoke

Ukip are in the midst of an expectation management exercise in Stoke-on-Trent Central. As Paul Nuttall battles to take Tristram Hunt’s old seat from Labour in this month’s by-election, the Ukip leader has said a loss wouldn’t be ‘terminal’ as the constituency is not even in the party’s top 50 target seats.

There’s reason for Ukip to get their excuses in early. Despite facing a lacklustre Labour candidate in arch-remainer Gareth Snell (not helped by an over-active Twitter account), Nuttall has hardly been welcomed to the area. The party had hoped for a Brexit boost in the Leave constituency, but the Ukip leader’s decision to list an address he had never been to as ‘home’ on his nomination form has upset locals. Activists complain that their campaign efforts are met with apathy on the doorstep while figures in Labour are starting to think that they stand a chance of clinging on after all. There are also murmurs of discontent over Ukip’s ground game, with the party missing Chris Bruni-Lowe, who was involved in the successful Rochester and Clacton by-election campaigns.

But Nuttall’s downplaying of his hopes for Stoke is somewhat disingenuous. His pitch as Ukip leader was that he could speak to disillusioned Brexit-backing working class Labour voters in the north. Stoke has plenty of them. Should Nuttall fail to woo them, the party do have another chance to deliver. With Andy Burnham on track to win the Greater Manchester mayoral election in May, the Labour MP for Leigh is expected to stand down and trigger a by-election. This is an area that, too, voted heavily to Leave (Wigan backed Brexit by 64pc), with Burnham previously warning that Labour has to become ‘more Hull and less Hampstead’ in order to keep constituents on side.

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