By William James
LONDON (Reuters) – Nigel Farage, the face of Brexit who forced Britain to hold an EU referendum and then upstaged the government by forging a friendship with Donald Trump, is a hard act to follow.
Just ask Paul Nuttall, the man elected to replace him as leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) on Monday.
As Nuttall gave his acceptance speech after winning the biggest leadership mandate in the party’s history, news photographers stood with their backs to him, lenses trained on Farage in the audience.
The scene encapsulated the challenge ahead for Nuttall: with UKIP’s main political ambition of leaving the EU seemingly in the bag, and Farage still hogging the limelight, what is the party’s political purpose, and how does it move out of the shadow of its former leader?
The answer, Nuttall says, is to massage the discontent among working class voters that drove the vote to leave the European Union, and harness it to win seats in the British parliament, where it currently has only one seat.
“There’s an anti-establishment feel which is growing right across the Western world and I want UKIP to be that vehicle here in the UK,” Nuttall said, setting himself a target of doubling UKIP’s poll rating to 26 to 30 percent by the election due to be held in 2020.
Nuttall says he will fight to reform Britain’s “obscene” first-past-the-post electoral system, which favors the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour. UKIP and other smaller parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Greens have little chance of winning power outright under that system.
Even so, the party set up in 1993 to remove Britain from the EU, has redefined British politics.
Under Farage, the growing popularity of the party’s eurosceptic stance forced then-Conservative prime minister David Cameron to promise a referendum on EU membership in the run up to the 2015 national election.
But with the central aim of the party – Brexit – now official British government policy, some UKIP members have questioned what the next two decades holds for the party.
Nuttall, a 39-year-old former history lecturer, says UKIP now needs to focus its efforts on taking voters from the leftist Labour Party in areas like his home city of Liverpool, a heavily working class, once-mighty industrial port in northern England.
“What we have to do is become the party that focuses on the issues that matter to these people,” he told a handful of reporters after his victory.
“These are the people who are most affected by uncontrolled immigration, these are the people most affected by crime, these are the people who tend to be very patriotic.”
Nuttall says this more focused approach by UKIP, which won 4 million votes in a 2015 election but only the one parliamentary seat, could see them win “double figures” of seats in a 2020 election.
“My ambition is to not only get myself into the House of Commons but to get as many UKIP backsides on the green leather as possible,” he said, referring to the green benches lining the parliamentary debating chamber in London.
In a move straight out of Farage’s playbook, Nuttall casts himself – an elected member of the European parliament – as different to other politicians.
“They have sharp suits and coiffed hair, and they don’t speak like me,” he said in a heavy Liverpudlian accent, with a wry smile and a roll of his eyes towards his own bald scalp.
Quick to point out he is not carbon copy of Farage, he says he will do things his own way, imposing quiet discipline on a party riven with factions and personal feuds to build a unified anti-establishment movement.
(Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)