The UK Independence Party was on course early today to leapfrog Labour and come second to the Conservatives in the popular vote in the European elections.
Its leader, Nigel Farage, who had threatened to resign if his party won fewer than 10 European seats, looked safe in his job after Ukip capitalised on the unpopularity of the biggest parties.
It was expected to win 13 seats in Brussels when all the votes had been counted. A BBC projection put it on 17 per cent of the vote, ahead of Labour on 16 per cent and the Liberal Democrats on 14 per cent. Ukip celebrated after winning its first seat in the European parliament at the expense of Labour in Wales, where it gained nearly 13 per cent of the vote.
The party came second – ahead of the Liberal Democrats and Labour – in the East of England with almost 20 per cent of the vote. It was also running second in the South West of England, where it was likely to win two seats. It was third in Yorkshire and Humber, where Godfrey Bloom, the MEP who once complained that women did not "clean behind the fridge enough", was re-elected.
In London its vote fell by two per cent, but it had one MEP returned.
Mr Farage claimed last night that his party could have polled even more strongly had the campaign focused more on European issues. He claimed that his party's policy of withdrawal from the EU was increasingly popular with the electorate.
Ukip's strong performance completes a remarkable recovery for a party that had once appeared to be staring into the political abyss. In 2004, buoyed by the high-profile candidacy of television presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk, it secured 12 seats in the European parliament, with 16.1 per cent of the vote.
That unexpected surge of support five years ago pushed the Liberal Democrats into fourth place. But the party rapidly plunged into chaos and in-fighting.
Mr Kilroy-Silk resigned to form another Eurosceptic party, Veritas, after his leadership ambitions were thwarted. One of its MEPs was jailed for expenses fraud, and a second faces prosecution. Shortly afterwards, it appeared in danger of heading for extinction, barely registering at the general election. But it has rebuilt its fortunes under Mr Farage's charismatic leadership. The expenses scandal handed a gift to Ukip as it attempted to raise its profile with the electorate.
Early today, Mr Farage said the party was now set to put up candidates for 500 Westminster seats.
He said: "It's about time we had a general election where we really discuss where 75 per cent of our laws are made."
• The Liberal Democrats were failing to benefit from Labour's woes as the first results were declared, but were holding on to existing seats and maintaining their share of the vote largely unchanged, at about 13 per cent.
In the North East region, Lib Dem MEP Fiona Hall was re-elected, coming third behind the Conservatives and Ukip, with 17 per cent of the vote.
"In our strong areas, the protest vote came to us but in the areas where it had been Labour-dominated, it went to Ukip," she said.
In Yorkshire and the Humber, the Lib Dems were fourth, with 13 per cent of the vote, down 2.5 per cent, and in the Eastern region, they came third, holding on to their one seat.Reuse content