Nigel Farage has enjoyed more false dawns than a customer at a transvestite holiday resort. Third place in the Bromley and Chislehurst by-election and runner-up spot at the European Elections in 2009 pointed towards a spectacular break-through at the 2010 general election. Focusing on election in the Speaker’s constituency of Buckingham – the constituency of the sitting Speaker is nominally uncontested though every election sees a collection of independents and oddities make a contest out of it – Farage stood down as leader to be replaced by Malcolm Pearson, aka Lord Pearson of Rannoch. I have a distinct memory of their election press conference crumbling before my very eyes, Lord Pearson struggling to hide the rather obvious fact that he hadn’t read his own manifesto.
Decked out in their garish purple and yellow party colours – which tend not to go well with mahogany tan – UK Independence Party candidates are notoriously good at talking up their chances. Under our current First Past The Post voting system, it matters not that the recent YouGov poll puts them within one point of overtaking the Liberal Democrats: no UKIP candidate will ever be elected directly to the House of Commons.
That said, it’s not as though Nigel Farage is Nick Griffin, who has seen his own British National Party collapse from height to shambles in a matter of months. Farage is the master of his party’s image and spin, and boy can the man talk. Yes, his anti-Belgium diatribes are embarrassing. His Statesman like behaviour carries all the credibility of a garden gnome. And yet…
The threat of UKIP has never been so potent as it seems to be this year. By “threat” I also mean “promise” and “aspiration”. Farage is not the captain of a sinking ship, even if the tan and fancy get up shouts “Howard’s Way”. With this month’s European Union referendum controversy still ringing in David Cameron’s ears, it’s little wonder UKIP are being talked about in terms of spoiling the party come election time 2015.
Realistically Farage has much more of a steep climb even with the EU debate so freshly served on the agendas of breakfast television programmes and commentariat sections in newspapers. Europe is the bee-hive poke which ruins every well laid out policy picnic Governments have planned since the days of Heath. There’s Cameron and Clegg in the rose garden, trying to return to the happy days of their honeymoon over barbecued halloumi and fruit juice when armies of purple and yellow ants creep up from behind.
Whilst the Liberal Democrats have been excellent in holding back most of the excessive policies of the Conservatives since last May, the secret coalition partner stalking Downing Street has been Nigel Farage. There must be times when even the mention of the word ‘defection’ sends Cameron into a blind panic, the kind which enters the mind of a teenage boy in the middle of entertaining upon hearing the sound of footsteps outside the bedroom door. What if, what if, what if…Whilst decent showings in general elections are quite beyond UKIP under the current voting system, causing a shock in local and European elections most certainly are not, something Cameron knows all too well. Additionally, any threat of a backbench defection, even just the one, would be a heck load of urine in the punch.
Crucially for the Conservatives, and in a broader sense pro-Europeans from all parties, is the lack of credibility on Farage’s part with regards to selling UKIP as a genuinely broad church. They have one policy – Europe – to which they return for each and every question posed. Until that problem is solved, then the polls will continue to show only one thing – where Liberal Democrats were once the party of protest for electors fed up with the mainstream parties, now stands UKIP. And as once was said of the LibDems, there’s no chance of a protest party ever getting into government.