UKIP sprouts as celebrities make a stand on Brussels

Joan Collins yesterday became the latest celebrity to back the UK Independence Party, which is on course to make large gains in next month's local elections.

Joan Collins yesterday became the latest celebrity to back the UK Independence Party, which is on course to make large gains in next month's local elections.

Ms Collins told a press conference at the Hilton Hotel in Nottingham that she was "extremely flattered" to be invited to become a patron of the Eurosceptic party.

Although she admitted she was not a political person and had not previously voted in this country, she added: "I do feel that my country - I am English - is losing a lot of what I grew up with. I feel we are eroding ourselves to Brussels."

Ms Collins, the enduring star of the American soap opera Dynasty, is the latest in a string of well-known figures to join the UKIP, including Robert Kilroy-Silk, the former talk-show host who left the BBC after branding Arabs "suicide bombers, limb-amputators [and] women repressors". He is a candidate for the party in the European elections next month.

Sir Ranulph Fiennes, the explorer, has also agreed to be a UKIP patron, while the party counts among its backers Edward Fox, the actor, Sir Patrick Moore, the astronomer, and Stirling Moss, the former racing driver.

High-profile publicity stunts, such as Ms Collins' endorsement of the party, have helped to boost its ratings in the polls and have taken mainstream politicians by surprise. Party organisers say there is more to come - including a flotilla of fishing boats, luxury yachts and smaller vessels which are due to sail up the Thames and converge at the Tower of London on 6 June, and an appearance by Robin Page, erstwhile star of One Man and His Dog.

But if the party is maintaining momentum in an otherwise lacklustre European election campaign, it is not entirely surprising. UKIP's chief campaign organiser is Dick Morris, who was Bill Clinton's campaign strategist, while its publicity consultant is Max Clifford, the public relations guru.

While other parties appear to be stagnating in the polls, UKIP, which currently has only three MEPs and norepresentative on the London Assembly, is making substantial strides in the polls and, according to an internet YouGov poll, is currently in third place, on 18 per cent, ahead of the Liberal Democrats.

Its rise in support has alarmed the mainstream parties, who fear the UKIP's distinctive campaign - which includes an election broadcast featuring a thigh-slapping Austrian wearing lederhosen being whacked in the face with a fish by a man in a sou'wester - is capturing the public's imagination.

In 1999 the party's support in the European elections was confined mainly to the South-east and South-west of England, but there is evidence of growing popularity in the Midlands and the North.

The party believes that a rise in support will allow it to gain at least 10 MEPs, as well as its first representatives on the London Assembly and dozens more local councillors.

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, has dismissed the party's rise in the polls as a "blip", while the Conservatives claim that their Eurosceptic credentials will not be affected by the UKIP's advance.

But the party, which supports immediate withdrawal from the European Union, is not only playing the Eurosceptic card. It is capitalising on widespread disaffection with mainstream politics and issues such as asylum and council tax. The UKIP favours turning back at the border all asylum-seekers who have come to Britain via a safe country.

But the UKIP added that some credit should be given to the Prime Minister for its recent surge in popularity. "Tony Blair, in calling the [European] referendum, made people wake up this whole issue of withdrawal from the EU," said a UKIP spokesman. "Our general mood is very, very optimistic."

But then the party has reason to be hopeful about its election chances. It is sitting on a £2m war chest - thanks in part to generous backers such as Paul Sykes, the Eurosceptic information technology millionaire.

MANIFESTO PLEDGES

European Union

Immediate withdrawal.

Asylum-seekers

Strengthen border controls and turn away asylum-seekers who have come to Britain via a "safe" third country. Abolish detention centres and welcome genuine asylum-seekers but throw out all failed applicants.

Local issues

Give people the chance to take part in local referenda on significant issues such as local planning decisions.

Tax

Abolish VAT, council tax and uniform business rates and replace them with a local sales tax.

Crime

To "do whatever is necessary to reduce crime and criminality to the levels of the 1950s".

Defence

Use a portion of funds from withdrawal from the EU to "regenerate all three arms of Britain's defence forces".

Healthcare

Reform the NHS to reduce central bureaucracy and allow more local control.

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