A tearful Paul Nuttall has apologised for false claims that appeared on his website that he lost “close friends” at the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, in his first speech to the Ukip party conference as leader.
“Many of you will have noticed that I’ve had a bit of a difficult week,” he told faithful delegates in Bolton. “This is two-fold actually.”
”Firstly I take the blame for the fact that I failed to check what was put on my website in my name. That is my fault and I apologise. But I do not apologise for what is a coordinated, cruel and almost evil smear campaign that has been directed towards me.
“It is based on lies from sources who have not been named. It has been a tough week for me but I will not allow them to break me and I will not allow them to break Ukip.”
It comes after a torrid week for the Ukip leader in which he was forced to admit the Hillsborough claims on his website – now “offline for maintenance” – were false and Lynda Roughly, a press officer for the Bootle-born politician, offered her resignation and claimed she was responsible. He has since faced calls to resign as an MEP for the North West.
But looking up at the audience, he added: “I was also asked by two journalists yesterday if I still have the support of my party.”
His words were met with a standing ovation and large cheers from the party faithful as one man in the crowd shouted “take that”. Taking his glasses off and wiping a tear from his eye, Mr Nuttall said: ”Thank you, I’m a bit overwhelmed. Thank you.”
Mr Nuttall, who is trying to unseat Labour in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-electon next Thursday, also struck a defiant tone and vowed to fight on. But when approached by reporters as he left the stage at the Macron stadium in Bolton, he refused to answer questions.
He used his speech to pledge to scrap VAT on hot takeaway food and women’s sanitary products – a move the party believes will save the average household £65 a year. “People should not have to choose between heating and eating,” he told delegates.
Mr Nuttall also pledged to divert £13bn from the foreign aid budget and spend billions of pounds a year more on the NHS and social care.
On immigration, he restated the party’s commitment to an Australian style points-based system, but said entry should be allowed on the twin premise of “aptitude and attitude” – stressing that immigrants should sign up to British values such as gender equality.
Mr Nuttall’s speech in Bolton came after Nigel Farage, the former leader, defended Arron Banks who said he was “sick to death” of hearing about the Hillsborough stadium disaster.
Asked if the Ukip donor’s comments were representative of the party’s mission, he said: “He’s a good friend of mine and he says all sorts of things on Twitter.” He added: “I’m not his spokesman... I’ve got lots of friends out there.”
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