The selection of Cllr Craig Mackinlay as Conservative PPC for South Thanet is a clever choice by the local association. As a former leader of UKIP, Cllr Mackinlay is even more able than other anti-EU Conservative PPCs to make the point that UKIP are weakening the eurosceptic movement by standing against them. As he has already told the Kent Messenger:
“I cannot see why he [Farage] would want to stand here. If he really wants a referendum, fighting me is not the way to do it.”
Farage continues to flirt about where he may stand, of course, enjoying the feeling of putting the frighteners on a variety of MPs – but even he will need some run-up time wherever he does pick. As he conceded four years ago after his third-place defeat in Buckingham, the perception that he had parachuted into an area arbitrarily hurt him at the ballot box.
This latest twist in the tale raises a wider question: what next for UKIP?
Their leader may still choose to stand in South Thanet – but if he does, he would make his campaign a microcosm of the more general concern that his party is set to harm the prospects of an independent Britain by damaging the chances of eurosceptic Conservatives. For a man keen to make 2015 about his party’s progress rather than its strategic errors, it would be an unwelcome experience.
There are other seats he may plump for – although he has expressed an intention to stand in a Kent seat near to his roots, and one of the other front-runners, Great Yarmouth, has now selected its UKIP candidate for 2015. Boston and Skegness (UKIP scored their largest share of the vote, 52 per cent, in Boston Borough in the recent European Elections), remains open as do various others.
The risk to the purple insurgency, though, is starting to emerge. Farage’s waiting game originated as a cunning way to keep securing headlines for the party even when nothing else was happening. However, as the glow of the Euros fades, and after their attack in Newark was seriously blunted, the will-he-won’t-he game is instead starting to feel like indecision – part of a more general impression of drift attaching itself to his party.
The perfect summer for UKIP had three stages: 1) win the European elections, 2) win the Newark by-election, 3) be the main voice of criticism when David Cameron failed to prevent Jean-Claude Juncker taking the EU Commission Presidency.
The first step went fine (though some inside the party feel the performance should have translated into a stronger local council showing), but things came unstuck in Newark. After not only failing to win, but falling short of successive predictions of their vote share, the bandwagon began to rock a little.
At the same time, UKIP suffered an unintended consequence of their European Election victory. Having selected several key spokespeople and members of staff as candidates, their operation was hollowed out by their success as those figures left their party jobs to become MEPs.
Most notably, Patrick O’Flynn, the former Daily Express commentator who had just bedded in as UKIP’s Head of Communications, is now MEP for the East of England – and the party is still not close to replacing him. Others in the press and policy team have either been elected or left Head Office to work for the new MEPs, too.
It’s no surprise that, having taken a hit in Newark and then lost the head of their media operation, the last few weeks have been uncharacteristically quiet. The two factors combined to prevent them making the most of Cameron’s defeat over Juncker, and the opportunity to start the summer on a roll has been missed.
The success of UKIP and Farage in the last couple of years has been based on momentum – cannily seizing opportunities to cast themselves as the real opposition to the “LibLabCon”, converting local stories into national scandals, stringing together by-election second and third places into a sense of ever-growing support.
In the last six weeks, that momentum has slowed. With his decision about South Thanet now complicated by the presence of an inconveniently eurosceptic Tory candidate and his press operation deprived of key staff, how does Farage intend to get the bandwagon accelerating again? While their poll numbers still look healthy, he cannot simply assume voters will stay with him in the absence of coverage or campaigns.
One possibility is that he will use the manifesto process to win headlines for ideas that are popular or embarrassing to the Conservatives. Yesterday a leak suggested UKIP were mulling a pledge to abolish inheritance tax, for example. But without the team to communicate such news, their ability to capitalise on such ideas will be severely limited.
Instead of keeping their eyes on the prize of parliamentary seats, the party has also been tempted to pitch into the Scottish independence referendum – which is not only a distraction from their main topic of leaving the EU and their main objective of winning seats in 2015, but a distraction which will see them spend time and money hundreds of miles away from their target seats.
Momentum works both ways: when it feels like you are gaining it, it becomes self-sustaining; but when people start to think you are losing it, your whole enterprise can slow down very suddenly indeed.