Anxiety in the Conservative Party about the rise of the UK Independence Party has increased after the anti-EU party won second place in two parliamentary by-elections.
As Ukip claimed it is now Britain’s third party ahead of the Liberal Democrats, there were renewed Tory calls for an electoral pact with Ukip at the 2015 general election in the hope that this would prevent it denying David Cameron victory.
Labour retained all three seats contested on Thursday – Rotherham, Middlesbrough and Croydon North – on a dismal night for the two Coalition parties. In Rotherham, Ukip secured its highest ever share of the vote (22 per cent) in a Westminster election.
Michael Fabricant, a Tory vice-chairman who supports a pact with Ukip, suggested yesterday the Eurosceptic party could come first in the 2014 European Parliament elections, which will be fought under proportional representation, giving it a boost before the 2015 general election.
“If Ukip does very well in the European elections, as many expect, it will give them some momentum at a critical time,” he said. Although Ukip had not achieved the victory it hoped for in Rotherham, he said, it had secured “not a bad result.”
Mr Fabricant added: “By-elections are not general elections, when Ukip can only be ‘spoilers’, not winners. For that reason, all parties should keep their options open when we approach the final months towards May 2015.”
Nigel Farage, the Ukip leader, below, said his party had now joined the “political mainstream”, adding: “We have established ourselves as the third force in British politics.” He said Ukip would talk to other parties about a pact if they promised a referendum on Europe – but the Tories would first have to ditch David Cameron because he had suggested Ukip was racist. “I’d do a deal with the devil if it got us a full, free and fair referendum on our membership in the European Union,” he said.
While the Tories were pushed into fifth place in Rotherham and fourth place in Middlesbrough, the Lib Dems suffered an even worse mauling, losing their deposit in Rotherham and Croydon. In Rotherham, Nick Clegg’s party came a humiliating eighth, reviving memories of the 1990 Bootle by-election in which David Owen’s SDP came seventh behind the Monster Raving Loony candidate, and was wound up shortly afterwards.
John Curtice, professor of politics at Strathclyde University, said Ukip had outscored the Lib Dems in this year’s by-elections by 6,000 votes, showing the Lib Dems were “no longer available as a party of protest.” He added: “They are a deeply unpopular member of the Coalition.” He suggested the Tories would be most worried about Ukip’s advance, while Labour could be “modestly satisfied” with its performance.
The by-elections in Middlesbrough and Croydon were triggered by the deaths of Labour MPs Sir Stuart Bell and Malcolm Wicks respectively, while former Rotherham MP Denis MacShane resigned after a highly critical report about his parliamentary expenses. Sarah Champion, pictured, became Rotherham’s first woman MP, winning a majority of 5,218 on a turnout of 33.6 per cent. In Middlesbrough, Labour’s Andy McDonald enjoyed a 48.7 per cent margin of victory over Ukip’s Richard Elvin, well up on Sir Stuart’s 26 per cent lead in 2010.
In Croydon North, Labour’s Steve Reed had a 47.9 per cent winning margin – up on the 31.9 per cent enjoyed by Mr Wicks in 2010 – and finished with 15,898 votes, ahead of Tory Andy Stranack on 4,137.