Inside Westminster: Ukip’s fortunes could brighten in the European elections, but don’t expect that to carry on in 2015 when it will really count

Farage did well in EU matters but was shaky on foreign policy and domestic issues

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Nigel Farage is unquestionably the man of the moment in British politics. He should enjoy it while it lasts – because it won’t.

The UK Independence Party leader appears on course to achieve his “political earthquake”. He “won” Wednesday’s broadcast debate with Nick Clegg on Europe: 57 per cent of people believed he performed best, with 36 per cent opting for the Deputy Prime Minister. Today another YouGov survey showed Ukip a close second behind Labour in voting intentions for the European Parliament elections in May, and one point ahead of Labour among those absolutely certain to turn out.

The other parties are right to be worried about the rise and rise of Ukip. But Mr Farage could still be heading for a fall at next year’s general election.

A fascinating study to be published next week by British Future, an independent think tank, puts the Farage phenomenon in perspective. It reminds us that we have been here before. The report analyses the three European elections since proportional representation was introduced in 1999.

The three “insider” parties – Labour, the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats – secured a lower share of the vote at the Euro polls than in the previous or following general elections, whether they were in government or opposition. Between them, Labour and the Tories got below 50 per cent of the Euro vote but recovered to two-thirds at the next general election. In contrast, “outsider” parties such as Ukip averaged 24 per cent in Euro elections but only 4 per cent when the nation next chose its government. Although the number of people voting doubled to about 30 million at general elections, the “outsider” vote collapsed – for example, from 4.7 million in the 2009 Euro poll to 1.8 million a year later.

According to British Future, Ukip could win between 25 and 30 per cent of the vote this May but, on past performance, should expect to lose about 63 per cent of it at next year’s general election. This would give Ukip just 5 to 6 per cent– unlikely to be enough to get its first MP.

Even if Ukip’s higher media profile and growing local presence allowed it to retain 66 per cent of its Euro vote, it might land only 8 to 10 per cent of the general election vote, the study says, and would still struggle to win any Commons seats.

In contrast, the Tories, as the main governing party, should expect to add about 13 per cent to their Euro election score, so a 23 per cent share for David Cameron’s party this May could be enough to secure a narrow victory a year later. The main opposition party should add between 6 and 8 per cent to its Euro score: if Ed Miliband’s party matches the Tories’ 2009 figure of 28 per cent, it could be enough to get him to Downing Street.

British Future reminds us that Euro elections are very different. The much smaller Euro electorate will have a much older, whiter and more vocally Eurosceptic profile than the voters of 2015, which will suit Ukip very nicely this May. About a quarter of those who vote in both 2014 and 2015 are likely to choose different parties. Indeed, Ipsos Mori found that about 55 per cent of Ukip supporters say their main reason for backing the party in the Euro poll is “to send a message to the other parties that I’m unhappy”, with only a quarter saying Ukip has the best policies on Europe and about 15 per cent that the party has the best policies to run Britain.

Of course, past trends are not always the best guide to the future. Senior figures in Ukip know the general election will be much harder to crack than the Euro poll but are convinced they can break the mould of British politics. Yet the first-past-the-post system is cruel on smaller parties and creates a huge mountain for Mr Farage to climb. Would millions of people really vote for him when they are choosing a government? He did well enough on EU matters in Wednesday’s debate but was shaky when it came to foreign policy issues such as Ukraine or domestic matters such as gay marriage. Next year, he will need a credible economic policy that goes much wider than quitting the EU.

However, even if Ukip wins no seats next year, it could be a “spoiler” which decides the outcome in key marginal seats by taking votes from other parties.

Some Tory and Labour figures complain that Mr Clegg was wrong to give Mr Farage a leg-up to a higher national platform with two broadcast debates, the second of which will be on Wednesday. The truth is that the Ukip leader had already elevated himself and is not going to go away soon.

The Lib Dem leader had nothing to lose – literally, as his party could end up with no MEPs, instead of its current 12, after the Euro elections. Mr Clegg’s performance was strong enough to appeal to the one in four people who are pro-EU. He now needs them to vote on 22 May. Mr Clegg deserves credit for kickstarting Britain’s first real debate on Europe since 1975, and for making the positive case for EU membership. With Mr Cameron and Mr Miliband so reluctant to make it, it is hardly surprising that Mr Farage has made hay.

Read more:
Nigel Farage: Why did Clegg duck the vital questions in our debate?

The Lib Dems’ quiet revolutionary

George Osborne may have won the plaudits for a skilful Budget with sweeping changes to pensions and savings, which appears to have changed the political weather. But one of the unsung heroes was Steve Webb, the quiet but highly effective Liberal Democrat Pensions Minister.

Unlike some of his Lib Dem colleagues, the former Institute for Fiscal Studies economist took to ministerial life like a duck to water. Unusually, he knows as much, if not more, about his subject than his civil servants, and is unmistakably a man in the right job. He has long had the annuities market and fees for workplace pension funds in his sights. Now, it seems, all his Christmases have come at once.

Mr Webb has formed a good working relationship with Iain Duncan Smith, the Conservative Work and Pensions Secretary, who lets him get on with his job.

With local and European elections in May, the Tories and Lib Dems will soon be kicking lumps out of each other again after their Budget truce. But the revolution in pensions, led by a quiet revolutionary, is another reminder that coalition works.

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