For the three main party leaders, the stakes in next week's European elections are very high. The spectacular rise of the fourth man in British politics, Nigel Farage, makes their task even harder, and the results less predictable.
David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg could all face some heavy flak from their own parties if they perform badly in the last nationwide test of public opinion before the general election in less than a year's time.
Despite Ukip's apparently unstoppable advance, a “poll of polls” for The Independent suggests that Labour is on course to win most seats at the Euro elections. The weighted average of the eight surveys of how people will vote next Thursday predicts a photo-finish between Labour and Ukip for first place. Although Ukip (29 per cent) is ahead of Labour (27 per cent) in the share of the vote, the carve-up of seats under the proportional voting system would give Labour 24 MEPs and Ukip 23. The Conservatives trail on 23 per cent, giving them 17 seats.
The projections provide some welcome relief for Mr Miliband, who is under mounting pressure from Labour MPs to deliver a strong performance next week. They are jittery because the Tories have closed the gap in the polls of how people will vote at the general election.
Today David Axelrod, the American political strategist who helped Barack Obama win two presidential elections, acknowledged that Ukip is exploiting voters' “disaffection and alienation”. His firm has been hired for a six-figure sum to advise on Labour's general election campaign. In private briefings for the Shadow Cabinet and staff at Labour HQ, Mr Axelrod said he was not working for the party as a “business proposition” but was “proud” to be asked to help Mr Miliband. He said the Labour leader understood the scale of the challenge for advanced economies to create wealth for all rather than relying on “trickle down economics,” as the Conservatives and US Republicans do.
Labour officials said Mr Axelrod admitted Mr Cameron was a “good politician” and that the Tories had a “good political operation.” But he insisted that Mr Miliband had the “big picture” arguments and “bold, very different offer” on the economy to win the general election, which would “send a message around the world.” He said Labour must “offer solutions” rather than rely on voters' “anger” like Ukip.
There is no doubt that Ukip has set the agenda in the Euro campaign. A string of headlines about the controversial views of some its maverick candidates seems to have done little to dent the party's appeal.
However, rival parties believe Ukip may regret not downplaying expectations in the way the other parties always do before elections. After predicting it would top the Euro poll, even second place might feel like an anti-climax rather than the “political earthquake” Mr Farage has predicted.
Mr Cameron has tried different tactics against Ukip in recent weeks. At first he virtually ignored Mr Farage's party, then said it was doing a good job of discrediting itself and later tried a more head-on attack. But nothing has halted Ukip's rise and rise.
The Tories would be embarrassed by coming third but previous talk of an attempt to oust him among Tory backbenchers has fizzled out. “Third place is already factored into his share price,” said one critic. The Tory recovery in the general election polls, and an improving economy, should provide a welcome cushion for the Prime Minister when next Thursday's results are known.
When people are asked whether they would vote to leave the EU, most polls suggest they would rather stay in and that they reject Ukip's call for withdrawal. Yet that has not translated into support for the Lib Dems, in the way Mr Clegg hoped when he challenged Mr Farage to two broadcast debates last month.
The Deputy Prime Minister is likely to face pressure from some Lib Dems to quit as leader if the party does badly in the Euro elections. Ominously for him, the poll of polls suggest the Lib Dems will hold just one of their 12 seats. Clegg critics would view that as a sign that his gamble in going head-to-head with Mr Farage had backfired. Some Lib Dems fear the party could even come a humiliating fifth behind the Greens.
Today Mr Clegg dismissed calls from the former Lib Dem MP Lembit Opik to resign if his party has fewer than six MEPs after the elections. He said: “The worse thing to do just as things are turning around [on the economy] and our judgements are being vindicated is to bail out.” His critics have other ideas.Reuse content