Nigel Farage's plans don't affect the price of fish (yet)

The more successful Ukip is, the harder it is for him to maintain the anti-politics pose


Allow me to introduce you to the Four-Square Rule. The Conservatives need to be four points ahead of Labour in share of the vote if they are to remain the largest party in the House of Commons. A four-point Tory lead is therefore where the parties are "all square". It is the break-even point between the Tories having the most seats, in which case David Cameron stays on as Prime Minister, and Labour overtaking them, in which case Ed Miliband moves in.

As the year ends, the Tories are on average five points behind in the opinion polls. That should not be too discouraging for Cameron. To go from five points behind to four points ahead seems a less than Herculean task, especially if voters start to feel better off next year, which seems likely.

Except that there is a bluebottle in the ointment – Nigel Farage. Number 10 was spooked last week by a full-page advertisement in The Daily Telegraph taken out by Alan Bown, a UK Independence Party donor, who has paid for polls in eight target seats. The polls were scary for numerate Conservatives, suggesting that the Labour vote was up by more in Conservative-Labour marginals than in national polls; that the Tory vote was down further than would be expected; and that Ukip was doing better than expected. In some places, this would hand Tory seats to Labour, with Ukip pushing the Tory candidate into third place.

Certainly, the Conservatives should take Ukip seriously. Lots of people want to vote Ukip, and for reasons which are not as unrespectable as is often pretended. Many of the party's policies are nonsense, as anyone who has tried to reconcile its spending promises with its plans to cut taxes and borrowing can attest. But the impulse behind them is widely shared. Ukip is more than a conservative party, it is a party of reaction. It wants to go back to before 1971, when the UK Parliament could decide who was allowed to live in this country, when there were grammar schools (and secondary moderns) everywhere and marriage was heterosexual.

Farage is a brilliant leader of this popular emotion. Like Alex Salmond and George Galloway he is a separatist, adept at promising to separate people from reality. Like them, he is poorly understood by Westminster journalists, which is why we anticipated the SNP victory in Scotland in 2011 so poorly and Galloway's win in the Bradford West by-election not at all. The European Parliament elections next year will give Ukip a good platform. "Half of the Tory tribe goes off and supports Ukip," says a senior, gloomy Conservative. They treat European elections "like a weekend retreat".

It will test the Prime Minister's nerve, but there is a limit to populism. I hope that the Scottish people will show in September that an anti-London vote is one thing, independence quite another. Galloway cannot get himself elected in the same seat twice. And a year after Ukip won 17 per cent of the vote in the European Parliament elections in 2009, it secured 3 per cent in the general election. Ukip has money and members but not much time to build an organisation capable of electing MPs.

Then Farage comes up against another limit. The more successful Ukip is, the harder it is for him to maintain the anti-politics pose. His dinner with Rupert Murdoch in March made him look like just another politician; and it is notable that he rarely mentions same-sex marriage, although it really animates his new recruits.

His reluctance is part of his desire to keep his party away from some of the fruitier cakes of the better yesterday brigade, such as Godfrey Bloom, the former Ukip MEP who yesterday accused Farage of having done a deal with the Tories to stand aside in some seats in return for a peerage. (As if: the party would lynch him.)

However, Ukip is still a problem for the Conservatives. Bown's polls confirm that Ukip has taken twice as many voters from the Tories as from Labour. But Labour is unlikely to win Thanet South as the result of a Ukip surge. If Farage stood, he could affect the result in one seat, but polls in individual constituencies have a poor record of predicting general elections, especially this far in advance.

National opinion polls are a better guide. In them, Ukip's support currently averages 12 per cent – a long way from "breakthough". And if Ukip does not break through, the only thing that matters is whether it takes more votes from the Tories than from Labour. The crucial point is that the damage Ukip has done to the Tories has already been done, and the Tories are only five points behind Labour. The question is whether Ukip will win over even more Tory voters rather than Labour ones between now and the election. I don't think so.

Certainly, by the end of last week, Cameron's advisers had calmed down about those Ukip polls, saying that they "hadn't changed the price of fish very much". They have to say that, of course, but I think they are broadly right. The success of Ukip makes it a harder for Cameron to get four points ahead of Labour, as required by the Four-Square Rule, but that is still an achievable target.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive / Digital Marketing Executive

£26000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A luxury beauty house with a nu...

Recruitment Genius: Housekeepers - Immediate Start

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This company are currently recruiting new exp...

Recruitment Genius: Head Concierge

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Content, SEO and PPC Executive

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has ari...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Clean energy should be our mission to the moon

Martin Rees
Angela Merkel and David Cameron say goodbye in the Bundeskanzleramt after their meeting in Berlin, Germany, 29 May 2015  

The complacency of Europhiles could lose them the referendum

Steve Richards
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific
In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

In this the person to restore our trust in the banks?

Dame Colette Bowe - interview
When do the creative juices dry up?

When do the creative juices dry up?

David Lodge thinks he knows
The 'Cher moment' happening across fashion just now

Fashion's Cher moment

Ageing beauty will always be more classy than all that booty
Thousands of teenage girls enduring debilitating illnesses after routine school cancer vaccination

Health fears over school cancer jab

Shock new Freedom of Information figures show how thousands of girls have suffered serious symptoms after routine HPV injection
Fifa President Sepp Blatter warns his opponents: 'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

'I forgive everyone, but I don't forget'

Fifa president Sepp Blatter issues defiant warning to opponents
Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report

Weather warning

Extreme summer temperatures will soon cause deaths of up to 1,700 more Britons a year, says government report
LSD: Speaking to volunteer users of the drug as trials get underway to see if it cures depression and addiction

High hopes for LSD

Meet the volunteer users helping to see if it cures depression and addiction
German soldier who died fighting for UK in Battle of Waterloo should be removed from museum display and given dignified funeral, say historians

Saving Private Brandt

A Belgian museum's display of the skeleton of a soldier killed at Waterloo prompts calls for him to be given a dignified funeral