When Margaret Thatcher taunted the then Labour leader, Michael Foot, that he was ‘frightened, frit’ by the prospect of a general election in 1983, Labour went on to suffer their worst general election result since 1935.The Conservative Party will be hoping that Nigel Farage’s decision not to stand in the forthcoming by-election in Newark will portend a similar fate for the UK Independence Party in next year’s general election. However, while Thatcher faced a divided opposition, on this occasion it is the Conservative Party which is in danger of splitting, and UKIP who are, for the time being at least, riding high in the polls.
While the other parties will be keen to suggest that Nigel Farage is too ‘frit’ to stand in Newark, from UKIP’s perspective this is probably a sensible move. UKIP have a significant poll lead going into the European elections but their chances of winning a by-election in Newark, likely to take place in June, are slim. UKIP came fourth in Newark in the 2010 general election, with less than 4% of the vote. There are no UKIP councillors on the district council and, unlike neighbouring Lincolnshire, UKIP failed to win any seats in Nottinghamshire in last year’s county council elections. Newark should be a safe Conservative seat. The seat has been held by the Conservatives since 2001, when Patrick Mercer won it back after a brief period of Labour control from 1997, and at the 2010 general election the Conservatives increased their share of the vote in Newark. While the Conservatives will almost certainly lose votes in the forthcoming by-election, and may even lose the seat, it would require a massive change of fortunes for UKIP to actually win it.
In explaining his reasons for not standing, Mr Farage also suggested that he had no links to the East Midlands and that he did not want to appear to be an opportunist. Farage, who was born in Kent and schooled in South Londonhas been an MEP for the South-East of England since 1999. He has stood for election in a number of European and Westminster elections in a range of constituenciesacross the South of England. At least some of these could clearly be seen as opportunistic, most notably standing against the Speaker, John Bercow, in Buckingham in the 2010 general election. Moreover, it seems unlikely that Mr Farage would have been quite so reticent had a seat become available in an area with more significant support for UKIP on the ground, Boston and Skegness, for example.
However, Farage’s reluctance to grasp this opportunity does perhaps suggest a more careful strategy, as UKIP now appear closer to real electoral success than at any time in their past. Farage, who has been linked to a diverse range of seats from Hartlepool to Great Yarmouth, will already haveselected a seat to contest in 2015, and is unlikely to risk this for short-term gain now. Apart from anything else UKIP hardly need any more publicity at present. However, although Farage’s suggestion that candidates should have some link to their prospective seat may be a hostage to fortune, don’t be surprised if we later learn that as a child Mr Farage spent every holiday on the beach at Skegness.
Any relief in Conservative Central Office at Farage’s announcement that he is not standing in Newark is likely to be short lived. The Conservatives haven’t won a by-election since the 2010 general election and UKIP have come second in the last five by-elections in England, pushing the Conservatives into third and even fourth place. However, the real danger for the Conservatives in Newark is a resurgent threat from Labour. The problem for the Conservatives of having a by-election this close to the general election is that Labour already have a candidate in place in Newark, and have been campaigning for some time. The Conservatives will need to find a new candidate, and will also need to persuade the voters that Mr Mercer’s flaws were not indicative of a wider malaise within the Party. They will inevitably lose votes, the question is how many.
Much may still hang on the European Parliament elections in May. For UKIP, the strongest argument forFarage standing in Newark was the hope that following what are likely to be significant gains in the European elections, UKIP could ride a wave of support which would give them victory in Newark. Similarly if, as is expected, the Conservatives do badly in the European elections, this is likely to depress the Conservative vote in the Newark by-election. However, the Newark by-election will also be a significant test for Labour. In campaigning for the European elections in recent days UKIP have been keen to suggest that they are winning support not just from traditional Conservative voters but also from disgruntled Labour voters. Although the evidence to support this is limited, if Labour do worse than expected in the European elections then the prospect of causing an upset in Newark will be slimmer.
Parties rarely welcome by-elections this close to a general election and for whoever wins in Newark their response is more likely to be relief than elation.
This post also appears in this week’s Lincolnshire Echo.