After Nigel Farage blew up his rocket on the launch pad at 8.05 this morning, today’s Prime Minister’s Questions became more important and less interesting.
But first let us pay our respects to the late UK Independence Party. It had a good run. There is a bit of fun still to be had. Today we have already had two opinion polls suggesting that it is going to win the largest share of votes in the European Parliament elections on 22 May by some margin. Ukip is nine or 11 points ahead with three weeks still to go, which has the makings of a landslide.
It may seem perverse to suggest, therefore, that the party is over. But I suggest that this is precisely what it is. Done with, finished, a footnote.
By failing to seize the party’s one chance to win a by-election, Farage has blown it. Not that “it” was ever a very good chance. Farage bottled the Newark by-election because he didn’t think he would win it. And if he couldn’t win it, there is no one else in Ukip who could. The best chance of achieving the “breakthrough” that is the holy grail for protest parties, which in this case would mean a handful of MPs at the next general election, would have been to establish the credibility of a bridgehead in the House of Commons before the general election.
I think we can now take it that Ukip will win one MP at the next election at most. That one MP might be Farage, standing in a Kent seat such as Folkestone, where he has connections, members and organisation. He would then be the Caroline Lucas of the next parliament and Ukip would fade away, apart from its large numbers of troublesome MEPs in the European Parliament.
The thing is that Ukip faces a challenge to its reason for existing after the next general election, whatever the result. If Cameron wins, he is committed to a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in 2017, after which Ukip would have little purpose. If Ed Miliband wins, the Conservative Party in opposition is likely to become several degrees more Eurosceptic. Boris Johnson only this week restated his view that, if Cameron could not secure better terms of EU membership, he would vote to leave. Again, the need for a separate anti-EU party will be greatly diminished. And if the Liberal Democrats, through some tragic accident of the arithmetic, should find themselves out of government, there would not even be the need for a separate protest party any more.
So that is it, I think. There will be a lot of fizz, smoke and carousel music, but in three weeks’ time the Great Ukip Flying Circus will be in decline. Big social trends are against it. The economy is looking up, and people mind less about free movement of workers when they feel better off. Scepticism about the EU has ebbed. YouGov now consistently finds that, even if there were a referendum now on existing terms of membership, people would vote to stay in.
Which left us with Prime Minister’s Questions. Back to politics as usual. The Ukip-free House of Commons debated the sale of the Royal Mail. Miliband complained about “a rip-off of taxpayers”. Cameron responded with a history lesson, quoting Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock on 1980s privatisations.
Miliband had a good argument and an effective debating point, quoting Brian Binley, a Tory member of the Business select committee, who had described the way the sell-off was managed as “unethical” and who was nodding in agreement on the back-benches behind Cameron’s blind spot.
Cameron had a reasonable argument - Labour had tried to sell the Royal Mail and this government had succeeded - and an effective diversionary tactic, pointing out that Miliband dared not mention the economy, jobs or the deficit, because they were all coming good.
The Prime Minister could not say what he really thought, which was that Vince Cable might have been taken for a fast one by some of those spivs in the City, but that the risks of failing to unload the shares onto the market were worse than those of seeing them snapped up and a rise in price, showing an instant profit.
But those are the sort of calculations that government politics are all about, the sort of thing that Ukip would like to wish away. Returning to real politics will be duller, but more important.