For a moment, I thought it was shocking honesty from Nigel Farage. 'I'm really very posh,' he told the Sunday Times as he discussed his electoral strategy for South Thanet. 'I think you're filthy, common people and you should laugh at my comedy act.' But reading it more closely it turned out to be his advice for Al Murray, better known for his alter ego The Pub Landlord, who seems to have rattled the Ukip leader by standing for the same seat in next month’s general election.
Perhaps this is not surprising. Although sharp satire, The Pub Landlord is appealing to the same anti-politics crowd as Farage's strand of stop-the-world conservatism. And if the comic collects a few hundred votes, this could be the difference between the Ukip leader winning a famous victory and remaining in charge of the party he has dominated for so long – or losing, and being forced to hand over the reins.
Even Farage admits it is not credible to carry on as leader without a Westminster seat, assuming the party picks up others next month. Yet Ukip seems to be wilting in the heat of election battle. It slumped to 10 per cent in Lord Ashcroft's latest national poll, the lowest level since last May and less than two-fifths the number backing it in that month’s European election triumph. Meanwhile, the Ukip leader seems to have buried a secret party poll showing him on course for defeat in his own constituency's tight three-way fight.
Typically, the Sunday paper chat was over a curry with jokes about booze. Farage revels in his blokey image and jokey approach – but there is nothing funny about his politics or his party. Ukip has had a malign influence on British politics with its crass brand of dog-whistle politics, which has shamefully found an echo in all three mainstream parties. Even Labour, led by the son of refugees from Nazism, now sells mugs with anti-immigration slogans. And Ukip’s xenophobia is increasingly evident as the party resorts to even cruder tactics to shore up its core vote and be heard above the cacophony of the campaign.
Farage’s attack in the leaders' debate on foreign-born people using the NHS was part of a carefully planned strategy insiders dubbed “shock and awful”. As so often, his facts were flawed to exaggerate a perceived problem. According to charities, he over-inflated both the number of foreign-born people needing treatment for HIV and the cost of treating them.
His comments were crushed by the two nationalist leaders taking part; Miliband joined the condemnation later on Twitter, presumably after checking with advisers this would not blur his stance on immigration. Health tourism actually costs the NHS about 0.1 per cent of its budget in lost income, although experts point out this is less than earned from overseas visitors travelling here for legal treatment, let alone costs of new medical border checks. But sadly such bile works; surveys show almost one-third of patients blame foreigners and immigrants for A&E delays, rather than praising staff from overseas for ensuring the health service keeps running and focusing on its real problems.
In pictures: The rise of Ukip
In pictures: The rise of Ukip
1/8 1993: Alan Sked forms Ukip
History professor Alan Sked had been active in anti-EU politics for a while beore he founded Ukip in 1993. He resigned from the party after the 1997 election, concerned that it was attracting far-right members, and has been critical of Ukip since. Picture: Reuters
2/8 2005: Kilroy defects
Former TV presenter Robert Kilroy-Silk founded Veritas in 2005, after a failed bid to become leader, and took many of Ukip's elected members with him. But the party slowly lost its popularity and didn't put forward any candidates in the last election. Picture: REUTERS/Kieran Doherty REUTERS KD/RUS
3/8 2010: Farage becomes leader, again
Farage had led Ukip from 2006 until 2009, when he stood down to fight against the Speaker, John Bercow, for his Buckingham seat. He failed to win the election and returned to lead the party in November 2010. Picture: REUTERS/Kieran Doherty
4/8 2010: Ukip fights for election
Nigel Farage was injured in a plane crash on polling day in the 2010 general election, but his party increased its success in the votes. It fielded 572 candidates and took 3.1% of the vote, though failed to win any seats. REUTERS/Darren Staples
5/8 2013: Eastleigh gains
Ukip's candidate Diane James got the highest ever number of votes for any candidate from the party, but was beaten by the Liberal Democrats. The surge in support gave Ukip confidence ahead of local and European elections later in the year. Picture: Reuters
6/8 2013: Bloom kicked out
Godfrey Bloom, who served as an Ukip MEP from 2004 to 2014, had the whip withdrawn in 2013 after sexist comments and an attack on a journalist. He sat as an independent MEP until 2014, when he ended his term in office. Picture: REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
7/8 2014: European election success
Ukip got a higher proportion of the vote than any other party in 2014's European elections, adding 11 new MEPs and taking its total to 24. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor
8/8 2014: Carswell defects
Douglas Carswell defected from Ukip at the end of August, and was followed by Mark Reckless at the end of September, who resigned from the Tories amid rumours of many more defections to come. Picture: REUTERS/Toby Melville
Farage is the sort of fellow who blames immigrants (like his wife, remember) for pretty much all he sees wrong with Britain, from delays on motorways to children no longer playing football on the streets. Already this year he has said he would like to see employers allowed to discriminate on racial grounds. And talked about Muslim “ghettos” run by sharia law, blaming them for the failure to prosecute “tens of thousands” of female genital mutilations supposedly being carried out in the UK. Meanwhile, he has jumped into bed in Brussels with a bunch of bigots and fascists.
Sometimes, having tooted on his whistle, he softens, as with the comments on race legislation. There seem to be undercurrents of concern from Douglas Carswell, one of the two Tory defector MPs whose politics are more inclusive and optimistic; his refusal to support HIV scaremongering spoke volumes. But it plays well with some people frustrated by Westminster’s games and the limitations of party politics, as well as those who are misinformed on immigration, scared of change or simply racist.
Farage, forever posing as an outsider, blames a media establishment for picking on his party, yet does not ask why Ukip attracts so many dodgy figures into its frontline ranks. After last month’s expulsion of another MEP over false expenses, a BBC reporter pointed out it has now suspended 18 councillors, 14 candidates, two MEPs, one national secretary, one youth secretary, one Scottish chair and an entire branch. What was that David Cameron said about fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists?
Some voters are seduced by this political shyster selling his phoney anti-establishment message, who talks about principles while switching policies to suit the polls like any other politician. Farage did well in post-debate polling, his popularity has risen and his party may well win a handful of seats – although ironically Ukip’s increasing toxicity is damaging his most precious causes, especially on Europe.
The rise of protest politics raises valid questions for Britain’s traditional two-party system, while profound issues of social and economic dislocation lie beneath the Ukip surge. But the Conservatives should loudly and proudly rule out any coalition with this misanthropic party; few things would be more damaging to their brand or more disastrous for national wellbeing. They would be better off putting The Pub Landlord in the Cabinet than having any truck with Farage and his motley forces.
Twitter: @ianbirrellReuse content