In little more than four months from now, the UK’s major political parties risk being engulfed in a monumental political firestorm that will stress-test their readiness for next year’s general election. Over the period covering 22 to 25 May, EU voters go to the polls to elect 766 members of the European Parliament. 73 of them will hail from the United Kingdom. Strangely, though, most of the attention ahead of these elections has not focused on the governing Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties, or the Labour Party which seeks to displace the coalition government next spring. Instead, media focus has largely centred on just one man: UKIP leader Nigel Farage.
With his routine broadsides against the political establishment, appetite for controversy, and blokish, everyman demeanour, Mr Farage has presided over the growth of the UK Independence Party from a party which garnered a mere 3% of the popular vote at the last general election into a serious contender in UK national politics. It is perhaps unsurprising that a party whose central mission is UK withdrawal from the EU should have traditionally fared well in past European elections. This time round, UKIP’s high command has high hopes of securing an improvement on its existing 9 MEPs and their second place in the poll in 2009. Some in Westminster whisper that UKIP may top the poll in May and even push the Conservatives into third place behind Labour.
To date, much ink has already been spilt and many pixels activated over the response of the three larger parties to the UKIP threat. From promises of an EU referendum, to tighter controls on the eligibility of EU migrants to claim benefits in the UK, all the main Westminster parties have made concerted attempts over the last couple of years to ‘shoot the UKIP fox’. However, few of these efforts have registered in the public consciousness, where public Euroscepticism has rocketed and UKIP has consistently polled in the low double figures for more than 12 months.
But what of UKIP’s strategy? How does it intend to consolidate the success it has won to date and establish itself as a serious player in British politics, the Westminster Parliament and, just maybe, in time, within a coalition government with one of the bigger parties? Such a question has clearly been on the mind of Nigel Farage for a little while. For whilst he has been happy to date for UKIP to soak up disaffected voters from the more established parties, there are signs, such as his initial comments over Christmas about admitting Syrian refugees to the UK, that he is attempting to shift UKIP away from being a party merely of protest on to a more secure, sustainable and serious political footing.
Other examples suggesting that this is an emerging trend, rather than merely a series of tactical manoeuvres, include the swift expulsion of errant MEP Godfrey Bloom from UKIP over embarrassment caused to the Party during its autumn conference last year, and Farage’s refusal to rule out a pact with the Conservatives – though, interestingly, not one led by Cameron – in a future parliament: a comment guaranteed to raise the hackles of many a UKIP member up and down the country.
How UKIP’s current strategy of tapping into political disenchantment will reconcile itself with Farage’s, perhaps more mainstream, long-term political strategy is itself a moot point. Having only just turned twenty years old, it is questionable whether UKIP would be in a position to withstand the internal scraps over changing the party’s fundamental political positioning, as the Liberal Democrats have had to do since forming a coalition with the Conservatives.
In essence, the question is whether, in the long-term, UKIP sees itself as purely a pressure group, endlessly shouting from the sidelines. Or does it need one day to share power with a mainstream political party in order to realise its own ambition of fashioning British politics, and other political parties, in its own unmistakable image?
Whatever the outcome, one thing is certain: people will keep on talking about Nigel Farage.
Newgate Communications will be holding a panel discussion, attended by Nigel Farage MEP, on the subject of ‘The City and the EU: better in or out?’ on Monday 20 January from 08:00 at a prestigious venue in the City of London. He will be joined on the panel by Peter Oborne, Chief Political Commentator at the Daily Telegraph; Dr Charles Tannock MEP, Conservative MEP for London; and Chris Cummings, Chief Executive of TheCityUK.
During the event, which will be attended by a large number of prominent City decision makers and opinion formers, Mr Farage will discuss how he sees the future of the City should Britain leave the EU, and also the strategy which will guide UKIP through the forthcoming European Elections.
To attend this event, please RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org (places strictly limited).