Slightly weird, maybe, but Ukip finds itself in a very good mood

The Tories can’t afford to ignore them, and Nigel Farage knows it, reports Oliver Wright

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Indy Politics

As celebrity endorsers go the early ’80s Radio One DJ Mike Read certainly appeals to a particular demographic.

He may now be consigned to a weekend show on Magic FM (in the North of England) but that didn’t stop the ranks of now middle-aged, male delegates at Ukip’s annual conference giving him a rapturous reception.

“The moment is imminent. Our time has come,” he told his delighted audience. “Have faith that there is a new dawn. Have faith that Ukip can make a difference. The long night of European darkness is over…Good morning Great Britain.”

They cheered. Even though they may be a little greyer and larger than they were, the activists at today’s conference in Birmingham are, in many ways, members of a party that is in its prime.

The anti-European movement has not looked so threatening since the 1990s when the Tories were last in power and UKIP’s precursor, the Referendum Party, was doing for the political career of David Mellor.

The party is now level pegging with the Liberal Democrats in the polls (at about 7 per cent) even though most polling companies do not mention Ukip when voters are prompted with the names of the main parties.

Ahead is the Corby by-election – caused by the exit from Parliament of Louise Mensch – where the party has high hopes of substantially denuding the Conservative vote, and then November’s police and crime commissioner elections, where Ukip is fielding candidates in about half of the contests.

With turnout expected to be less than 20 per cent, these could throw up some surprises and set Ukip up nicely for the European elections in 2014.

But what really causes David Cameron concern is what may happen at the 2015 general election. While Ukip is still unlikely to win seats in Westminster because of the first past the post system, it needs to pick up only a small minority of dissatisfied Tory voters to alter the final result.

As Peter Kellner, the president of the polling company YouGov, puts it: “This is what really worries the Tories – not that they’ll win seats but that they’ll siphon off three or four thousand Tory votes in marginal seats and that will mean Labour will win more seats.”

Sensing this, Ukip is trying to widen its appeal and show it is not just a single-issue party. Getting rid of speed cameras, bringing back grammar schools, lowering taxes and opposing wind farms are all policies designed to appeal to voters disenchanted with Mr Cameron’s Conservatives.

The Prime Minister’s dilemma – like John Major’s before him – is that if he tacks to the right to contain Ukip he could lose the votes he needs from the centre. But if he ignores Ukip he could well lose the votes he needs to win at all.

This is something that Nigel Farage, Ukip’s charismatic and slightly bombastic leader, knows only too well. Despite mischievous headlines today suggesting that the party might stand aside in Tory marginals if Mr Cameron agrees to an in/out EU referendum, this is highly implausible. Mr Farage knows he has got the Government worried and is enjoying every moment of it.

“This party is in a very good mood,” he grins. “And I haven’t offered a deal to anybody. Deals can take many shapes and many forms and I have no doubt that in return for helping one of the two main parties we would expect some representation in Westminster ourselves.”

And even if he wanted some kind of pact he would have a hard job selling it to his members. After years of being seen as slightly weird and eccentric no-hopers, they are revelling in their new found relevance.

Harold James, an active Ukip member from Weston-super-Mare, has been to nine conferences and to his mind this is the best so far.

“In terms of the quality and content of the presentations there has not been any better conference,” he said. “I think we’ve proved that we are a serious party that cares about a lot more than just Europe.”