Ukip leader Paul Nuttall denies his party is in crisis

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Ukip leader Paul Nuttall has denied his party is in crisis and said there were positives to be taken from its "bruising" defeat in the Stoke by-election.

Speaking at the party's South West regional conference in Weymouth on Saturday, Mr Nuttall also addressed claims that his leadership was weak, saying that it was not weak to ask for unity.

Ukip had seen Stoke, which voted overwhelmingly for Brexit in last year's referendum, as fertile ground for a challenge to Labour in a contest triggered by the resignation of former shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt.

However, Mr Nuttall's gamble of standing himself failed to come off as Labour's Gareth Snell held the seat with a majority of 2,620.

Addressing party members, Mr Nuttall admitted the party had suffered a "difficult few weeks".

"The Stoke by-election was a bruising experience for me personally and indeed for the party," he said, adding: "I read this week in many news outlets that Ukip is in crisis.

"This is not a party in crisis, this is a party that is on the move and looking to the future."

Mr Nuttall urged members to look at the positives from the Stoke defeat, saying Ukip had never been favourite to win the seat but had "set the agenda" of the contest by forcing the Labour and Tory candidates to "come out for Brexit", and had come second, cutting the Labour majority by half.

He said the "real reason" the party did not win was because the Tory vote had not come to Ukip, and that with hindsight that should not have been surprising.

He said: "Theresa May is going through probably the longest honeymoon period in modern politics because she is very good, and always has been, at talking the talk, and indeed if you look at or listen to her speeches recently she could be giving those speeches at a Ukip national conference, but the one thing that we know with Theresa May is that she is never very good at walking the walk."

Mr Nuttall said the party needed to be the "guard dogs" of Brexit as he was convinced the Tory party would begin to "barter away and backslide" on it.

"Now is not the time for panic or knee-jerk reactions and now is certainly not the time for navel-gazing or in-fighting," he said.

"All we have to do is hold our nerve, and the future is bright, the future is purple."

The conference comes on the same day that Ukip's biggest financial backer, businessman Arron Banks branded Mr Nuttall "weak but potentially a good leader".

Mr Banks was critical of Mr Nuttall's failed campaign in the Stoke by-election and said of the party: "It needs to be fit for purpose now. It's run like a squash club committee and that needs to stop."

On the subject of his own leadership, Mr Nuttall, who said the party needed to "professionalise", said: "I want to make one thing perfectly clear, bringing people together and asking for unity is not a sign of weakness. 

"Bringing people together to look to the future, to work hard for this party, is a sign of strength."

The leader promised members that Ukip would get a "fresh rebrand for a new era" and would remain a radical party, pushing for an Australian-style points-based system for immigration and aptitude and attitude tests for migrants.