Nigel Farage can't come into the Conservative conference secure zone, but is hovering around the metal barriers at fringes and receptions. The Tories are trying to squeeze him out of the frame as they hold their annual jamboree, but they aren't succeeding terribly well: today's news is full of speculation about a Tory/Ukip pact, even though Farage has been talking about this for years (see James's interview with him in the Speccie).
But beyond this conference, all the parties are interested in - and worried about - how on earth they can squeeze Farage effectively when it really matters. The 'squeeze message' is one that parties deploy in the days before polling day, to concentrate the minds of voters tempted to vote for a third party. It tells voters that backing Ukip or another party with no chance of winning an outright majority is a waste of a vote and may end up letting in the very party they hate the most. Because this matters even more than usual (normally it's just a way of keeping the Lib Dems from causing trouble in marginal constituencies) now that Ukip is the third largest party, the Tories are already deploying their 'vote Ukip, get Labour' squeeze message. And James outlined in this week's magazine the policy stances that the Conservatives can take to reassure would-be Ukippers that the Tories are still true blue. But when polling day comes, the question that strategists are asking is how effective their squeeze messages will really be on Ukip?
After Eastleigh, the Lib Dems ran focus groups with voters who had deserted their party for Ukip. They ran through all the things that the voters were angry about Britain today. Towards the end, one of the group leaders asked, partly out of exasperation, what it was that these voters actually liked about Britain. There was a pause, and then one member said: 'Its past.' At that point, says one person involved in the talks, they rather gave up.
The question is how angry will those voters be on polling day? Will an improving economy and gestures on human rights reform and European renegotiation be enough for them? 'Or will they be lost forever?' says one aide. Can the parties really squeeze Nigel Farage? They won't really know the answer until the few days before polls open.