Ukip is wilting in the heat of election battle — but perhaps the damage is done

Farage's crass brand of dog-whistle politics has shamefully found an echo in all three mainstream parties

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The Independent Online

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.

 

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: @ianbirrell

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