DOUBTS have been raised over Ukip’s chances of winning the Stoke on Trent Central by-election after the party’s leader and candidate in the Staffordshire seat Paul Nuttall pulled out of a local hustings with his rivals.

His non-appearance occurred after Mr Nuttall faced calls to resign as an MEP over inaccurate claims that he lost close friends in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster.

Organisers of the campaign event ahead of next week's Stoke Central by-election said they were told the Ukip leader would not be attending about an hour before it was scheduled to begin.

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The leader’s principal political adviser and fellow Ukip MEP, Patrick O'Flynn, stepped in to speak on his behalf at the campaign event organised by Stoke-on-Trent's City Centre Partnership business group.

A spokesman for the event, held at a hotel in Hanley, said he had been informed that "essential party meetings" linked to Ukip’s conference on Friday in Bolton meant Mr Nuttall was not able to appear.

Mr Nuttall's non-attendance at the hustings follows a decision to take his official website off-line for "scheduled maintenance".

The Ukip leader has apologised over claims - carried on the website for six years - that he lost close personal friends at Hillsborough, which he admitted was wrong during a live radio interview.

Just a week before he contests the by-election in the Stoke Central seat held by Labour since 1950, Mr Nuttall was branded a "coward" after a Ukip press officer said she was to blame for the posts.

Liverpool Mayor Joe Anderson called on the Ukip leader to "explain himself" to the people of the city.

He said: "It's not the press officer who should be offering their resignation, it should be Paul Nuttall offering his resignation as a candidate, never mind for what party."

Bookies William Hill has now slashed its odds on Mr Nuttall winning the Staffordshire seat, saying betting for the MEP had dried up in wake of the Hillsborough row. It puts the Ukip candidate on 15/8 while Labour’s Gareth Snell is now odds-on to win at 2/5.

Meantime, Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrat leader, branded Mr Nuttall a "disgrace", telling the Daily Mirror: "Paul Nuttall is a coward. You cannot believe a word that comes out of his mouth. And every time he gets caught making things up, he just blames it on the office junior. The man is a disgrace."

Mr Nuttall has stood by his account that he was at Hillsborough when tragedy struck on April 15 1989.

However, families of some of the 96 Liverpool fans who died in the disaster have voiced their anger at the false claim that he lost close personal friends.

Barry Devonside, whose son Christopher, 18, was among the victims, said the Ukip leader's credibility had "gone out of the window" and branded the post "insensitive".

"We don't need this kind of thing from Paul Nuttall. He should know better as a politician and leader of Ukip," Mr Devonside said.

Margaret Aspinall, who chairs the Hillsborough Family Support Group, told LBC radio: "A lot of people who were there that day did lose close personal friends and it's an insult to them as well as to all the families who did lose somebody on that day."

On Tuesday, Mr Nuttall apologised for the claim - contained in at least two press releases on his website - after being challenged during an interview with Radio City Talk in Liverpool.

He told presenter Dave Easton: "I haven't lost a close personal friend, I've lost someone who I know. I haven't put that out, that is wrong."

Later that day, Lynda Roughley, the UK press officer, said she was "entirely responsible" for the website post and offered her resignation.

A Ukip spokesman revealed the resignation had been rejected, adding: "Obviously, Paul is grateful for her offer but what sort of chap would he be to say her career is dead for what seems to be a minor error six years ago?"

In a statement Mr Nuttall made clear that he stood by his account of being present at the disaster as a 12-year-old fan after doubts were raised by The Guardian.

"From the upper tier of the Leppings Lane end of the Hillsborough Stadium, I watched the events of that day unfold with horror," he said.

Speaking at the hustings event in the Stoke Central constituency, Mr O'Flynn told an audience of business leaders: "Paul Nuttall is a great working-class success story in British politics, which is incredibly rare, and would really be a role model for young people in this city."

A Ukip spokesman said Mr Nuttall was due to keep to a commitment to appear on BBC Radio Stoke alongside Conservative, Green Party, Lib Dem and Labour by-election candidates on Thursday night.