Nigel Farage faced ridicule from Conservative MPs today after he ruled out of standing for the Ukip in the Newark by-election.
The Ukip leader argued that his candidature would be a distraction from his party’s drive for votes in next month’s European parliamentary elections.
He also said he had no local links with the Nottinghamshire constituency, where the Tories will defend a 16,000-plus majority following Patrick Mercer’s resignation over cash-for-questions allegations.
But his explanation was mocked by a series of Conservative MPs who took to twitter to accuse him of losing his nerve.
Ben Wallace, the MP for Lancaster and Wyre, said: “That faint clucking you can here in the distance is Nigel Farage...chicken!”
Mark Garnier, the MP for Wyre Forest, tweeted: “Nigel Farage and the Newark by-election: Man or mouse...? Pass the cheese!!! Squeek squeek...”
The former Tory vice-chairman Michael Fabricant said: “Nigel Farage is such a tease! (Or is he like G.Brown - scared of an uncertain election?) In any event, he now says he won't stand in Newark.”
The Ukip leader had keep Westminster guessing overnight over his intentions following Mr Mercer’s announcement yesterday evening that he was quitting.
Ukip gaffes and controversies
Ukip gaffes and controversies
1/18 European elections poster
Party's latest EU election posters branded 'racist' and compared to BNP campaigns
2/18 Farage 'car-crash' interview
Ukip spin doctor forced to intervene as Farage falters in disastrous radio interview
3/18 Neil Hamilton
Picture Exclusive: The year is 1998. The venue is a Springbok Club meeting. The flag is a symbol for white supremacists in South Africa. And the speaker is Ukip’s deputy chairman, Neil Hamilton
4/18 Kerry Smith
Kerry Smith resigned as would-be MP for South Basildon and East Thurrock after it emerged he had mocked gay party members as “disgusting poofters”, joked about shooting people from Chigwell in a “peasant hunt” and referred to someone with a Chinese name as a “Chinky bird”
5/18 Natasha Bolter
Former Ukip member Natasha Bolter was suspected of not having the teaching qualifications she professed to, only days after it was revealed that claims of her having attended Oxford University were also false
6/18 Ukip Calypso song
Mike Reid released a single in praise of UKIP trying to control the UK's borders, only to withdraw the single after being accused of racism for singing in a Jamaican accent
7/18 Janice Atkinson
Janice Atkinson, Ukip's South East chair, pictured by protesters while campaigning in Ashford, Kent with local party chair Norman Taylor
8/18 Ukip cancels Freephone
Ukip cancels Freephone number after protesters repeatedly called to push up costs
9/18 Farage 'car-crash' interview
Mr Farage appeared to be caught out on a number of issues, from Romanian neighbours to people speaking foreign languages on the train
10/18 Ukip employs illegal immigrants
Ukip criticised after European election candidate found employing illegal immigrants
11/18 Magnus Nielsen
Ukip candidate: 'Take away the right to vote to improve election turnout'
12/18 Poster model
A “British builder” portrayed in a Ukip poster accusing EU workers of taking UK jobs turns out to be an Irish actor - aka a migrant worker
13/18 'Arrest protesters'
Ukip called for police to arrest protesters ‘who call us fascists’ ahead of showdown with anti-fascist groups in Brighton
14/18 London Live make-up
Ukip's Nigel Farage reportedly refused to go on London Live 'without professional make up-artist'
15/18 Andre Lampitt
Ukip forced to suspend the "poster boy" of its European election broadcast, after it was revealed he had posted a series of vile racist comments on Twitter
Nigel Farage says he is taking taking legal advice over “outrageous” allegations that he is responsible for more than £50,000 of “missing” EU funding that was paid directly into his personal bank account
17/18 Have I Got News For You
Nigel Farage appears in Have I Got News For You, spends the entire episode being ridiculed over expenses and party 'fruitcakes'
18/18 Anti-gay comments
Local branch chairman for Ukip defends a party's councillor candidate Douglas Denny who called gay people “abnormal” and said he wished “they stop trying to ram it down my throat”, all while discussing whether the word “sodomite” should be used
He ended the suspense this morning, telling the BBC: “I don't want to do anything that deflects from the European election campaign, so I am not going to stand in this by-election.
“I want to focus the next three weeks on winning the European elections.”
He said: “It was only 12 hours ago that Patrick Mercer stood down, so I haven't had long to think about it. But I have thought about it and we are just over three weeks away from a European election at which I think Ukip can cause an earthquake in British politics from which we can go on and not just win one parliamentary seat, but quite a lot of parliamentary seats”
The Ukip leader said: “I don't have any links with the East Midlands, I would just look like an opportunist and I don't think that would work.”
But he added: “We will fight the Newark by-election and fight it damned hard and get a good local candidate.
”But we will also, over the course of the summer, be targeting two or three dozen seats for the general election next year. This party isn't about one politician, it's not about one man, it's not about one by-election, it's about a nationwide political movement.“
Mr Farage denied that his decision not to gamble on a run at the Newark seat revealed a lack of courage.
”I think I have shown some courage over the years. I have helped take this party from nothing into a position where last Sunday it was leading the opinion polls in a national election.
“It's about choosing the right battles, it's about prioritising.
”I know that if I had said yes to standing in Newark the next three weeks would be dominated by 'am I going to win, am I not going to win' and we wouldn't be talking about open door immigration, EU membership, most of our laws being made somewhere else and the issues on which I want us to win the European election.“
He added that there would be ”pressure and splits within the Conservative Party“ after the European elections and ”this may not be the last by-election that comes up between now and next May“.
On BBC Radio 4's Today programme he added: ”I'm a fighter, I'm a warrior but you have to pick your battles in life.“