Who's laughing now? Nigel Farage forces Ukip into the political mainstream with a stunning haul of seats in the local elections but how will he cope with the big time?

His party was dubbed a bunch of clowns – but they emerge as serious nationwide threat to three main parties

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Indy Politics

When the scale of Ukip’s electoral triumphs started to become clear, Nigel Farage had swapped the green Barbour he has worn during much of the campaign for his Arthur Daley-esque camel-coloured number with the suede collar. And while the Ukip leader managed to be more statesman-like than usual in a hectic round of TV and radio interviews, he was unable quite to free himself from his familiarly fluent sales patter.

Quite how he knows, to take a trivial example, that “good old Ken Clarke, looking as though he had been dragged through a hedge backwards after a bad Saturday night”, managed to add three per cent to the Ukip vote share by calling its members “clowns, fruitcakes and all the rest of it” is a bit of a mystery.

Sweeping assertions like this one are no doubt forgiveable in his moment of elation. But, from now, he is going to find his statements are subjected to greater scrutiny. The hard-smoking, pint-swilling “rather engaging geezer” – as he was once described by Boris Johnson – is hardly going to turn into a fully paid-up member of the buttoned-up political class he purports to despise. But it’s possible that we may hear less of his past frequenting of lap-dancing clubs, jokes about having enjoyed his job working in the City every day “until lunchtime”, and slightly dodgy gags about the death of the late Eastleigh MP Stephen Milligan, all of which he regaled a parliamentary press gallery lunch with a couple of weeks ago.

For this is the big time. It already seemed bizarrely missing the point to see BBC News’s election coverage dominated by a studio panel of the hitherto three “main parties”, when the drama’s main character was elsewhere: if not Hamlet without the Prince, this was Julius Caesar without Brutus, the political giant-slayer that Farage, after years of being patronisingly written off as a bit of a joke, now threatens to be.

What Farage definitely has is a populist “this guy is actually saying what he thinks” appeal. This has stood him well as he tells voters deeply disillusioned by an economic mess for which they still blame all the main parties that their leaders are “all the same” and went to the “same schools and Oxford colleges”. And he has finally fused his obsession with EU withdrawal, which isn’t a hot issue for voters, with immigration, which is, by claiming the first is the answer to the second.

Yet his own background is not quite as classless or anti-politics as he likes to imply. The son of a stockbroker who went to Dulwich College, he did indeed work in the City and only left the Conservative Party when John Major signed the Maastricht Treaty. In a BBC interview yesterday, he compared Ukip’s position to that of the game-changing SDP in the early 1980s, which didn’t win many seats but broke the mould by changing politics.

The difference may be that whereas the SDP pushed politics – and especially the Labour Party – towards the centre ground, Ukip’s attempt is likelier to push it – and especially the Tory party – even further to the right.

Comparisons with Europe, where economic slump has propelled mavericks like the Italian comedian Beppe Grillo to political prominence, have become commonplace. A more relevant comparison might be with the Tea Party and its impact on the US Republicans.

Not all of this will be easy. Anyone who has been around the country in the last week, including in Folkestone, where Ukip won all three county council seats, has been struck by voters saying they were mainly going for Ukip as a mid-term “protest” or, as a pensioner in Long Eaton put it, to “give ‘em all a good kicking”. It may not last.

Farage – who, it’s rumoured, is not an easy man to work with – is a one-man band presiding over an “outfit” he himself complains is difficult to lead. He has yet to deal fully with the apparent undesirability of some of his candidates, since the excuse that Ukip does not yet have the resources to monitor all 1,700 of them in these elections will not wash a second time. For now, however, he looks like being on a roll, at least until the European elections. As the man himself, quoting Bob Monkhouse, likes to say: “They’re not laughing now.”