Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Why Farage Bottled Newark

Patrick Mercer resigning from Parliament because he's ashamed of his wrongdoing? Now there's a welcome change. Perhaps a few more MPs should take note. In the normal course of things Mercer's career might have had a footnote on the news, but as it passes into the night it was immediately overshadowed by one question. Will Nigel Farage stand in the resulting by-election?

Well, now we know the answer. While dithering has become a thing on the right of late, what with Dave paralysed in the face of winter flooding, getting pulled from pillar to post by competing pressures and now dragging his feet over TV debates next year; and Boris Johnson playing will-he-won't-he with a possible return to Westminster; Farage could not afford this luxury. He made his decision quickly. And he bottled it.

Forget the ever-so-principled reasons Farage has outlined for ruling himself out - that UKIP have a laser-like focus on the European elections where they will "cause and earthquake", and how he himself has no personal ties to the East Midlands let alone the constituency - this decision has been made not out of UKIP's best interests, but what suits brand Nigel.

Newark is a safe Tory seat. It hasn't always been - the constituency had a Blairite interlude between 1997 and 2001. But it's likely to stay blue after 2015. 16,000-strong majorities have a stubborn tendency not to collapse. Even in a by-election with a massive hype machine behind them and greater name recognition than the Tory and Labour candidates, UKIP and Farage were by no means certain to romp home. The Tory PPC Robert Jenrick comes from the Jo Johnson/Edward Timpson 'nice chap' wing of the Conservatives, and actively campaigned when he ran in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 2010. Some might think Farage would have had him for breakfast, but one should not underestimate the appeal of the quietly determined normal man. 

With Farage leading from the front UKIP had a very srtong chance but bookies must now be slashing the odds. And imagine what would have happened to Farage's standing had he lost. The wheels would have come off the bandwagon, the political establishment could portray him as defanged and it would have constituted a massive blow to UKIP morale and momentum. Farage would be cast as the usurper that didn't usurp. Then there is a practical consideration. UKIP MEPs get away with murder. As a rule they turn up less than their mainstream counterparts and live a good lifestyle without the responsibilities commensurate with their salaries. Farage in Westminster would have upset some of the cosy chumminess and given UKIP the political legitimacy it desperately needs to secure its future, but Farage would have to see constituents and, to some degree, act responsibly. Being a celebrity campaigner clashes with constituency duties, as a cursory glance at George Galloway will tell you. Farage has therefore acted rationally. He is serving Farage's interests.

So the prediction I made on Twitter yesterday that UKIP will not win the by-election still stands. But there is something missing from this picture - a Labour-shaped something. In the media scrum this has attracted, Labour have been totally written off. This is despite having come second place in 2010 with 11,000 votes. It was also disappointing to see Ed Balls comments about how the seat would not remotely be on the list of priorities because of the Tory majority. Well, it should be now. Because of the character of this by-election, because of its timing Labour should make a national effort and not leave it to the local party with a few "celebrity" appearances. If Labour approach this with a no hope attitude, what does that say to actual and potential Labour voters across the country? That we're only interested in them when we can get something out of it? That we're running scared of UKIP? It will not do. There is an outside chance that UKIP's presence will turn Newark into a three way marginal in which a modest swing to Labour could see it come through the middle. But also the by-election is an opportunity for Labour for other reasons. It is a chance to test out new tactics against UKIP and getting our money's worth from the recent appointee. Labour should therefore run an insurgent, spiky campaign that takes no prisoners.

Coming so close to the European elections, the by-election is a terrible headache for Dave. He'll be very worried about the mauling his grapple with UKIP will give him. But what he needs is reminding of who is real opponents are.


Anonymous said...

"not out of UKIP's best interests, but what suits brand Nigel."

At the moment to two are indistinguishable.

And Nigel's decision was in the best interests of both.


Phil said...

No, there is a clear divergence of interests. It's in UKIP's long-term interests to professionalise somewhat and not be so dependent on being a one-man band. Nigel's lies in the opposite direction.