“Thanks to you, Stoke was our best fought by-election ever” – not the words you would expect to read from the Ukip chairman after Thursday’s defeat.
But that was the subject line of an email sent out by Paul Oakden to party members on Saturday afternoon.
“Many of us had hoped that we’d be starting our day today with a second UKIP MP,” read the email, before continuing: “The work that so many of you put into helping our campaign in Stoke deserved far more than the second place we achieved. Truly, I’ve never seen a UKIP campaign like it.”
“This is hilarious,” remarked one Ukipper who had been with the party for more than ten years after reading the message.
But just why did Ukip fall short in a by-election that seemed easier to win than lose? The party was competing in the so-called Brexit capital of the country, against a deeply unpopular Labour Party in a seat that had a low turnout: all the conditions needed for an upset.
Despite coming second in Stoke Central in 2015, the party did not put any resources into the seat in that campaign. So when Labour MP Tristram Hunt announced he was quitting as an MP in January this year, Ukip had no serious infrastructure to take advantage of the opportunity.
East of England MEP Tim Aker was drafted in to help run the nuts and bolts of the campaigning operation. When he arrived in Stoke, he discovered there was no data for him to work from, and no archive of local issues for the party to focus on.
As a result, he decided to play on the fact that Stoke Central was overwhelmingly eurosceptic – with 65% of voters backing Leave in last year’s referendum.
He told Huff Post UK: “If you are looking at a constituency where we don’t have a single piece of data – not one pledge – you go for the low hanging fruit given that Article 50 was going through Parliament at the time and Labour were at sixes and sevens over it.”
This resulted in huge billboards going up proclaiming: “Trust Ukip to get us out of the EU; Labour wants to keep you in.”
However, Aker’s tactics were not met with approval by all in the party. One senior Ukipper said: “He was working on the premise that there were a lot of people in Stoke who didn’t know that Ukip were for Brexit at the start of the campaign. Those people who didn’t know that were probably non-voters.
“If you don’t know that Ukip wants to leave the EU, are you the kind of person that’s going to go out during a storm in February to vote?”
It wasn’t just Aker’s billboards which were deemed to miss the target. The party’s leafleting campaign also left something to be desired.
One senior Ukip official told Huff Post UK: “The first one had the same picture of Paul on both sides, obvious opportunity wasted there to do a bit more with it. People like to spend a long time honing the fine details of the text on these things but I think the graphical impact on things are at least as important as the words you put on it.”
Brexit was not all the party decided to focus on. The NHS played a central role in the by-election. Ukip leader – and Stoke candidate – Paul Nuttall had in the past talked up increasing privatisation in the health service – something Labour were keen to bring up as often as possible.
Despite admitting he had changed his mind on the policy, Nuttall’s previous statements did have a cut through with voters.
Ukip’s Brexit spokesman Gerard Batten said the suggestion Ukip want to privatise the NHS has “never been the case, never was the case but it’s a lie that was peddled and it gained some traction in the constituency because as we knocked on doors people were bringing it up.”
The party tried to counter this by sending out leaflets claiming “Don’t believe Labour’s lies – Paul Nuttall and Ukip will NEVER privatise the NHS.”
However, this constant focus on the health service meant Ukip was spending much less time than normal taking about a subject it had dominated for years: immigration.
Speaking after the defeat, former leader Nigel Farage was clear the party had not exploited the issue enough. Speaking to the BBC, he said: “There is a debate in Ukip as to how strong we should be on the immigration issue. I personally think we should own it.
“So we will have to look at that and think: were we really tough enough, were we clear enough with the electorate? It has got to be looked at.”
One member high up in the Farage wing of Ukip said the problem was “wet Ukip having too much influence over Paul and the campaign”, and singled out former Daily Express Political Editor Patrick O’Flynn as wetter-in-chief.
O’Flynn left Fleet Street for frontline politics in 2014, and was elected as an MEP that year. Despite describing Farage as his political hero, the ex-journalist has clashed with the former party leader on numerous occasions.
After the 2015 General Election, O’Flynn quit his frontbench role as Economic Spokesman after claiming Farage’s advisors had made him appear “thin-skinned, snarling and aggressive”.
In last year’s referendum, O’Flynn was the only Ukip MEP not to be seduced by Farage into backing Arron Bank’s Leave.EU organisation – and then Grassroots Out – for designation as the official Leave campaign. O’Flynn instead supported Vote Leave – also backed by Ukip MP Douglas Carswell.
After Nuttall was elected Ukip leader in November, O’Flynn was appointed as one of his closest advisors, with his knowledge of the media deemed crucial in helping get Ukip’s message across to voters.
Above the door of Ukip’s campaign headquarters were branded three pledges on the NHS, immigration and a “speedy” Brexit. The fact the NHS was top – above immigration – was deemed a sign that “wet Ukip” was in charge.
A senior Ukip official contrasted running the campaign on the NHS with trying to win over the Conservative voters needed to take the seat.
“There’s no evidence of that at all either in the leaflet design or in the canvassing. If we were doing that, I think it was only in Patrick O’Flynn’s own mind,” they said.
Of course, there was another factor which played a role in Ukip’s defeat: the unraveling of Nuttall’s backstory.
The claim on his website that he lost “close friends” at the Hillsborough disaster was exposed as untrue, and even though a long-serving press officer held her hands up and admitted the mistake, the perception of shiftiness remained.
It wasn’t the first time Nuttall’s personal history needed correcting. Claims he had been a footballer for Tranmere Rovers when he had only been a youth player, and had a PHD when he had in fact only started a doctorate were also given an airing.
It all painted a picture of someone who could not quite be trusted.
Douglas Carswell – still Ukip’s only MP – refused to blame those revelations for Nuttall’s defeat, but did think the legacy if the Farage inspired “shock and awe” tactics used in the 2015 General Election had left a legacy around the party.
“If a large number of people are willing believe the worst about you, you need to ask why that is,” he told Huff Post UK.
Despite the defeat, Ukip is taking some positives from the by-election. It managed to mobilise hundreds of activists in a short space of time, and from a standing start now has contact information on thousands of voters.
But there is no doubt that despite the positives, this is a huge set back for the party in its attempt to eat into the Labour heartlands in the Midlands and the North.
It is now at a crossroads and is finally having the conversation which many in the party believed it should have had after the 2015 General Election:
Does it carry on with the Farage tactics of focusing on immigration, which leaves it open to the charge of the nasty party?
Does it try to rebrand – or, in many ways, return to its roots – as a small state, libertarian insurgency?
There is even a third possibility, with Ukip becoming a party which attacks globalisation and talks up state intervention as the way to resuscitate ‘left behind’ communities.
Whichever path it chooses, until it ups its ground game, the party will continue to struggle to win by-elections.