First Cameron, then Miliband – now it was Nigel Farage’s turn to be granted the status of a January interview on the Marr sofa. And there was plenty to discuss: the Sunday Times’ splashes on the story that a party official joked that Ukip represents ‘hundreds of thousands of bigots all over Britain’, the Sunday Mirror’s splash on the same official saying the NHS is a waste of money — plus the Sunday Telegraph’s news of MEP Amjad Bashir’s defection to the Tories, and carries an interview with him saying the Tories (with their referendum pledge) are the true flag bearers of Euroscepticism.
Whether it’s dry January or a restful period away from the spotlight, Farage did a good job of looking not very bothered. Here are my take-aways:
1. Farage taunts Tories for accepting Ukip rejects
On Bashir, Farage claimed the party has been ‘increasingly alarmed’ by his behaviour and said there is some ‘quite strong documentary evidence’ against him, which I revealed last night. Farage is certainly not upset as his departure:
‘Whichever way we look at this, he’d reached the end of the road with us. He knew that. My only surprise, my genuine surprise, is that the Conservative Party accepted him. Caveat emptor.
2. Ukip doesn’t really expect to win more than four seats, a tiny number compared to SNP’s likely haul
Although the party will be standing candidates in every seat, he said Ukip will be fighting a focused campaign:
‘We are fighting a target seat strategy. We have identified the seats in which we have the best chance. There are generally marginal seats and the reason for that is we take equally from the other political parties…we are going to win a good number of seats on May 7′
When pushed by Marr, Farage agreed that a good number is ‘more than 3 or 4’ but refused to be drawn into any ‘wild predictions’ beyond that. (Let’s remember that the SNP is looking at winning more 20 seats – so SNP is likely to be a far bigger factor in this general election than Ukip)
3. Farage’s price for coalition: referendum now, and no foreigners voting in it
Farage said it’s ‘very unlikely’ he would form a coalition – of course, with just four seats, Ukip would scarcely be worth entering coalition with. But he’s clearly given it some thought – outlining the EU referendum terms he wants to prop up a Labour/Tory government. If Miliband or Cameron want to woo Farage, this is what they’ll have to agree to:
‘I want a referendum, I want it now. I want a referendum with good rules —namely the spending limits for both sides are the same. And I want a guarantee that in this referendum, the only people that can vote are British citizens. Because at the moment, there are 4 million or so EU citizens living in Britain who I do not think should be able to vote in that referendum.’
4. Farage dismisses most damaging comments as ‘pub banter’
On the other comments made by general secretary Matthew Richardson, Farage said his NHS comments were not party policy and Ukip believes in a NHS ‘free at the point of delivery and funded through taxation’. On Richardson’s bigots remarks, Farage brushed this off as ‘the depths to which this general election is sinking’ and defended Richardson’s remarks as banter in the pub:
‘What happened here is there are people in a pub, officers of the party after a long meeting, having a drink and in this case — because we’ve been branded bigots by left wing comedians — making a joke that in fact the late Eric Forth used to tell. Now, if you’re expecting me to ban all Ukip officials for ever going into pubs, smiling and laughing and joking, it isn’t going to happen’
5. Overall, Farage performs well under fire
His controlled and humorous approach to such allegations — which have also been countered with counter-briefing across the media from Ukip HQ — shows the increasing professionalism of both Ukip and its leader.