Can Nigel Farage survive as leader of Ukip if he doesn’t become an MP? Although he stood in South Thanet ten years ago — and gained a meagre 5 per cent of the vote — he has much bigger hopes for the impending election. But the dangers are also much higher than ever before. As I wrote in the Spectator recently, if Farage doesn’t win South Thanet, his position as Ukip leader would become untenable. He admitted to me it ‘could be a car crash’ if he doesn’t become an MP.
Farage has publicly admitted today that South Thanet won’t be an easy fight and there is a huge danger if he doesn’t win. In the extracts in today’s Daily Telegraph from his new book The Purple Revolution, Farage confirms that he would have to stand down as leader if Ukip has a smattering of MPs and he isn’t one of them:
‘The consequences of me failing to secure a seat for myself in the Commons would be significant for me and the party. It is frankly just not credible for me to continue to lead the party without a Westminster seat of my own. What credibility would Ukip have in the Commons if others had to enunciate party policy in Parliament and the party leader was only allowed in as a guest? Am I supposed to brief Ukip policy from the Westminster Arms? No – if I fail to win South Thanet, it is curtains for me. I will have to step down.’
Some senior Ukippers have been privately playing down the notion that Farage would stand down, noting that his recent TV and conference appearances in America could line him up for an international political career — a talking head in Brussels, Washington and London.
Farage is duly doing everything possible to win in South Thanet and overturn the 17 per cent Tory majority. As describes in The Purple Revolution, it was during the ‘cold, dark and alcohol-free days of early January’, where some assumed he was seriously ill, when he properly concentrated on the South Thanet campaign. Instead of using Ukip’s national message, Farage is running a highly local campaign with targeted messages from his campaign manager Chris Bruni-Lowe:
‘My campaign strategy for Thanet will be based on how we won Rochester and Strood, but it will be more forensic. On January 18, we bussed in about 500 Ukip activists and canvassed the whole constituency – street by street, houseby house. On that day, we garnered basic, but crucial, voter data. Who were hard-line Tories? Which households were possible Ukip voters? Which ones were solid Ukip and where were the Labour supporters? Equally important, however, was information about the issues that most worried them. Was it immigration, the NHS or the local airport?’
The polls suggest that, at the very least, Farage is in with a shot. Lord Ashcroft’s last poll said he is one point behind while Survation has him eleven points ahead. From my experiences on the ground, Farage appears to have the ‘Big Mo’ but Ukip will be aware of the ‘anyone but Farage’ campaign gearing up. Despite claims to the contrary, Labour is not giving up on South Thanet. In the book, Farage says realises he is a ‘Marmite man’ – people either love or loathe him. Ukip will be hoping there are enough of the former group to push him over the line.