UKIP members are gathering for their annual conference in Birmingham today and frustratingly for the party, it remains a niche political event. Unlike the media explosion for the other three political gatherings, UKIP's two day rally will have no wall-to-wall TV coverage and little in-depth analysis of the speeches.
But since Nigel Farage gathered his flock last year, Britain’s other party has seen its profile raised substantially. Martin Kettle admitted in the Guardian this week that UKIP are now a ‘force to be reckoned with’ who could become kingmakers that will ‘shape the 2015 election and the politics of Britain and Europe for a generation’.
Polling suggests they are indeed a significant political force. Looking at Ipsos MORI voting trackers, UKIP potential share of the vote has risen steadily over the past year and occasionally challenged the Lib Dems for third place. You can highlight an area on the chart below to zoom in on how their vote share has changed:
The major benefactor to UKIP rise in popularity has undoubtably been the Prime Minister. David Cameron's decision to keep the Tories firmly in the political centre ground, while batting off discussions on immigration and EU membership, has continued to frustrate the more right wing party members and supporters. Dissatisfied Tories have found a natural home with Farage and if they continue to build in numbers, the strength of UKIP threatens to split the Tory party, especially if an EU referendum becomes a reality. Paul Goodman examined the possibility in the Telegraph this week:
‘The Ukip leader evidently hopes that similar co-operation during another [EU membership] referendum would bring a similar outcome – that a No vote and Tory splits would divide the Cameroon leadership of the party from its base. Mr Farage is trying to wean his party off the EU issue alone, woo traditional Tory voters and park his guerrilla army on Mr Cameron’s lawn.’
If UKIP are planning to wreck havoc on the Tories, are Farage and co. still willing to cut a deal with the Conservatives to benefit both parties at the next general election? On the Daily Politics show, deputy UKIP leader Paul Nuttall confirmed they are open to an olive branch:
‘I think you never say never in politics, and it all depends on where we are in 2015. If we come off the back of the European elections and we’re still polling double digits I think the Conservatives will find it very difficult not to come to us and offer us some sort of deal because it will be clear then that they can’t form an outright majority without our support.
But the party appears to be undertaking a subtle move away from Europe. Although EU troublemaking remains their bread and butter, there are increasing signs that UKIP are shifting from being a pressure group to a full-on political party, as Nuttall outlined:
‘You can deliver as many signatures to Downing Street as you like. It’s pie in the sky – the only way you’re going to deliver a referendum if by fighting elections and hitting them at the ballot box.
‘We’re polling double didgits. In all likelihood we’ll go on and win 2014. We have to be very careful with the referendum issue, because there have to be checks and balances.’
There are other signals too — Farage is dumping their cheap-ish pound sign branding to move to something more inclusive. Plus, this weekend's conference schedule consists of not just debates on EU policy but also discussions on policing, health, defence, energy, agriculture and transport. However, there is one significant void on the agenda — a discussion of education policy, although the party's approval of grammar schools remains well known.
As I’ve written previously, the 2014 European elections remain the critical test point as to whether the last few years of positive polling can be transformed into electoral success. Even if they trounce the Conservatives at the European elections, UKIP has a fair distance to go before they are a serious contender on the national stage. For now, Farage can remain content as a serious hazard to a Tory majority in 2015; by dragging away the disgruntled Tory voters David Cameron so desperately wants and needs to hang onto.