Voters may turn and face the strange at polls

The combination of the MPs' expenses scandal and the economic crisis could bring some bizarre results at next week's county and European Parliament elections.

Rarely have the fringe parties - usually regarded as no more than a gnat-bite on the face of British politics - found themselves in such a favourable position as they do today.

The three big parties are, all of them, at a dangerously low ebb in terms of public esteem, and whereas mid-parliamentary term elections invariably register a degree of hostility towards an unpopular Government, this time it looks as though Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat candidates may all share in a demonstration of odium.

Ministers and leading figures in other political parties are getting decidedly jittery about the prospects of the British National Party.

The latest was David Cameron who denounced them as "Nazi thugs" after a member of his audience at Leyland had told him that the talk in his JobCentre was to vote BNP since Eastern Europeans were taking British jobs.

This is the theme on which the BNP is basing its campaign and their mainstream political opponents are worried as to the effect this is having on the growing numbers of unemployed in Britain.

The BNP must be delighted at "the oxygen of publicity" - as Margaret Thatcher would have called it - which their enemies are providing them with.

Meanwhile, the BNP must have been no less elated by the public furore created over the possibility that their leader, Nick Griffin, might have attended the Royal Garden Party.

But the United Kingdom Independence Party also seems to be benefiting from the present state of the economy, of British politics, and of the increased loathing of the principal parties.

A private poll on behalf of UKIP puts them within "striking distance" of Labour - such a situation would have been unthinkable only a few months ago.

UKIP must also be grateful to the Tory peer Lord Tebbit - still a hugely influential figure in Conservative circles - for advising people not to vote for the mainstream parties next week, although he carefully did not specify how they should vote.

This drew a sharp rebuke from Mr Cameron.

There are signs, too, that voters are dissatisfied with the way that discredited MPs, who have said they will not be contesting the next general election, are being allowed by their party leaders to remain in Parliament until then and thus collect hefty "golden goodbye" pay-offs.

There is a growing feeling that these people should have been told to resign from Parliament there and then, and create by-elections.

Meanwhile the fears that the small parties may embarrass the big ones at the polls next week were exemplified by Ed Balls, the Schools Minister, who pleaded: "Whichever mainstream party the voters are going to vote for, they should go out and vote and not allow minority parties to gain."

For the first time in living memory, possibly, the principal party leaders seem to be more worried about the political minnows than they are about each other.