Paul Sykes: The financier behind Nigel Farage

Ukip’s biggest backer has lavished millions on the party - driven by a visceral hatred of the European Union

Money has not been a problem for the election campaign that ended so triumphantly for Ukip this week, because it has an asset that no other small party, not even the Lib Dems, can match – a very rich money man.

Paul Sykes is a 70-year-old self-made Yorkshire multimillionaire on a mission to get Britain out of the EU, and with a proven willingness to reach deep into his pockets to achieve it.

When Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, that single-minded obsession prompted him to help to bankroll the Conservative Party. Her successor, John Major, was too pro-EU to hold Sykes’s support. The next, William Hague, briefly seemed to be Eurosceptic enough, until May 2001, when a rally in Westminster of the then little known UK Independence Party was electrified by the appearance of this Yorkshire businessman who promised to donate £100,000 a day, every day, for the remaining 10 days of the general election campaign.

Last November, he renewed that vow by promising to give “whatever it takes” for a Ukip victory in this week’s poll. It was a promise that could be taken seriously, coming from someone who had already given Ukip £1.5m, and who is 155th in the latest Sunday Times Rich List, with an estimated fortune of £650m.

 

It was Paul Sykes’s money that paid for the much criticised Ukip campaign posters, which he also helped to design. One of them purported to show a British builder begging in the streets because immigrants from the EU had filled all the jobs – but which actually featured an Irish actor. Another showed Union flags burning, and another depicted a giant escalator running up the white cliffs of Dover with the words “no border, no control”.

How effective they were is a matter of argument. As the results came in on Thursday night from Rotherham, where Ukip has grown from having no visible presence a few years ago to being the official opposition, with 10 newly elected councillors, some commentators took to Twitter to suggest that their success had been “bought” with Sykes’s money. Rotherham’s Labour MP, Sarah Champion, said there were “many reasons” for the Ukip surge – of which the Sykes largesse could be one. “The poster campaign funded by Ukip donors played to people’s fears around jobs and around immigration,” she said.

But there are Ukip activists who say that Sykes’s wealth had nothing to do with it – such as his fellow Yorkshireman, Godfrey Bloom, now an ex-MEP, but still a founder member of Ukip. “We have worked our balls off up here,” he said. “We’ve won 10 seats in Rotherham and it’s been done by bloody hard work. It’s got sod all to do with Paul bloody Sykes.

“Ukip have had £150,000 of my money. That’s a hell of a bigger proportion of my wealth than Sykes has given from his. Paul Sykes, bless him, is a patriot, but to pretend this success is down to Paul Sykes really pisses me off.”

What cannot be denied is that Sykes has come a long way from his Barnsley beginnings. He grew up on a council estate, and claims to have been a “complete dud” at school. He has told a story about an art teacher who looked at his drawing of a racing car and said: “The only thing you’re going to drive is a brush, around Barnsley” – a remark which spurred his ambition.

At 15, he started work as a tyre fitter. At 17, he began stripping down and reconditioning second-hand buses and lorries and exporting them to the Far East. By the age of 24, so he has claimed, he was earning £3,000 a week and driving a Rolls-Royce. One of his greatest business ventures was the development of the Meadowhall shopping centre off the M1 just outside Sheffield, which has drawn controversy because it has been blamed for sucking business out of Sheffield and Rotherham, with the result that shops were closed and boarded up.

Interviewed during the construction in 1989, Sykes said that his aim was to make a profit. In that, he succeeded spectacularly: he sold Meadowhall in 1999 for £1.2bn, bringing him a profit of £280m. But speaking to BBC Look North in October 2007, just after he had collected a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to Yorkshire, he said he regretted his part in spreading “consumerism”. “It has gone way beyond whatever I imagined,” he said. “I did not think people would become obsessed with it.” Quite what he expected from a shopping centre filled with more than 280 shops is hard to understand.

In the same interview, he said he had since organised the planting of half a million trees, which was “the best thing I have ever done by far”.

In 1995, he and another Yorkshire businessman, Peter Wilkinson, launched Planet Online, which specialised in providing corporations with internet access at a time when the web was relatively young. Sykes sold the business after three years, for £85m. “I’ve created more than 140,000 jobs and paid £400m in taxes – and all in this country – thank you very much,” he told the Daily Mail.

To judge by the occasional interview he has given, wealth and success have not brought happiness, and he has foibles unusual in such a driven money-maker. He does yoga and meditates, is involved in projects such as the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and has given money to a long list of good causes.

Though he has known Nigel Farage for many years and respects him, he does not share the Ukip leader’s well-known vices. He does not smoke, and rarely drinks. When Sykes turned 70, his daughters arranged a surprise party at which Robbie Williams was a guest, along with many of his old school friends, but that aside, he appears not to be a great socialiser.

When he and his wife Valeria separated in 2012, after 44 years, he gave interviews in which he called her Miss Perfect, blamed the separation on his restless life, and implied that he half wished he had been content to be a tyre fitter all his life, rising perhaps to be manager of a tyre fitting shop. And he has also said that he will give away all his money, apart from the thousands he has spent buying houses for his daughters, because leaving them a fortune would disrupt their “natural evolution”.

Next year, Ukip will fight a general election, in which Nigel Farage may hope to seize a Commons seat. If the party needs money, it knows whom to call.

A life in brief

Born 30 May 1943, Barnsley, South Yorkshire.

Family Father was a Yorkshire miner. Currently separated from wife of 46 years, Valeria.

Education Left school with no qualifications.

Career At 18, dismantled old buses and sold them as scrap to the Far East. Moved into property, and built the Meadowhall shopping centre in Sheffield, which he sold for £1.2bn. Created Planet Online, an internet firm, which sold for £85m in 1998.

Read more: Full local election results
Labour and Tories left reeling
Coalition tries to shift focus
Labour takes Cameron's 'favourite' council
Farage: 'The fox is in the henhouse'
Ukip: London 'too educated and cultured' to vote for us
'I'm not resigning' says Clegg
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are in need of a HR Manage...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Business Development Manager - HR Consultancy - £65,000 OTE

£35000 - £40000 per annum + £65,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: London, Birmingham, M...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick