Farage triumphant while 'Clegg must go' movement grows
While Ukip prepare to target Westminster seats, is it time the Lib Dems withdrew from the coalition?
Fresh from his party's astonishing success in the European parliament elections, Ukip leader Nigel Farage is to target 20 or 30 Westminster seats in the May 2015 general election in a bid to hold the balance of power in a hung parliament.
In the short term, Ukip has high hopes of winning its first Westminster seat when the Newark by-election takes place on Thursday 5 June.
The anti-Europe party topped the euro poll with a 27.5 per cent share of the votes and took 23 seats – and they could add one in Scotland later today. It was "the most extraordinary result in UK politics in 100 years", said Farage, and with the momentum of the local and European elections behind him, it's now a case of 'Bring on the general election'.
“What we have got to do is come up with a target strategy,” he told Radio 4's Today programme this morning. “We will do it in areas where we have county councillors and district councillors. That is the plan to get a good number of Ukip MPs elected next year.”
While Farage is grinning ear-to-ear, it's all getting dirty for the other party leaders – especially Nick Clegg who is the target of a 'He must go' campaign after the Lib Dems were beaten into fifth place behind the Greens and were left with only one seat in the European parliament (and that was thanks to votes from Gibraltar, which bizarrely is counted as being part of the South East of England).
Lord Ashdown, a former commando and Lib Dem leader, was reported by The Times to have threatened to “cut off the balls” of fellow Lib Dem peer Lord Oakeshott if he publicly called for Clegg to go.
“In my usual herbivorous and gentle way I put a friendly arm around Matthew [Oakeshott]’s shoulder and said, ‘Matthew, if after May 23 you again pop up and make a difficult time for the party more difficult I shall cut your head off and then your testicles’.”
But Sandra Gidley, the former Lib Dem MP, who signed an open letter by 200 activists calling for a new leader, said the Lib Dem brand had become “toxic” and Clegg should go quickly. Without a new leader, she said, “We could be toast at the next election."
Farage believes that Clegg will be forced to go. “Clegg’s position is very vulnerable indeed. I would be very surprised if he led the Lib Dems into the next general election.”
The only alternative, it seems, is for the Lib Dems to pull out of the coalition as soon as possible so that it can begin campaigning on its own policies and principles.
Labour leader Ed Miliband is also feeling vulnerable, Labour having finished behind Ukip in the euro poll on 25 per cent – though just ahead of the Tories on 24 per cent.
Most commentators feel it is highly unlikely the party would change leaders with only 12 months to go. But Peter Kellner, chairman of YouGov, said Miliband would be “terrified” by yesterday's result.
“There are two things that Labour has failed to do under Ed Miliband's leadership,” Kellner told the BBC. “Firstly, to establish Ed Miliband as a plausible prime minister… Then, when people ask who you trust more on the economy, the Conservatives are well ahead… I know of no election when a party that has won the election has been behind on both leadership and the economy.”
Miliband will now be under intense pressure from Ed Balls and other senior members of the shadow cabinet to get tougher on Europe and immigration. He could even be forced to match Cameron’s promise to hold an in-out referendum in a bid to win back Labour voters who deserted to Ukip.
David Cameron, interviewed on the Today programme, said: “I think that is why Labour did so badly – they had little to say about Europe rather than respecting the voters.”
But the PM himself is under pressure from David Davis, the eurosceptic former Tory minister for Europe, to offer a referendum before next year's general election rather than waiting until 2017.
Cameron made it clear he will not bow to that pressure, but the Tories are planning to reintroduce a referendum bill, binding them to hold the plebiscite after the election, in the Queen’s Speech on 4 June. A previous bill was kicked out in the Lords by Labour and Lib Dem peers.
Asked on Today whether he would rather go into coalition with the Lib Dems or Ukip, Cameron ducked the question. “I am going to be very strict on this one – between now and the next election I am only going to talk about my goal… on winning rather than ‘what if' questions.”
Pressed on whether he would do an electoral deal with Farage, he said: “We don’t do pacts and deals.”
He's saying that now, but how will he react if Roger Helmer, the Ukip candidate at Newark, wins the 5 June by-election? That is the potential horror for Cameron, Miliband and Clegg.
One puzzle this morning was why Cameron agreed to come on the Today programme in the wake of yesterday's embarrassing third place? He didn't have to put his head above the parapet.
Nick Robinson, the BBC's political editor, believes it's because the PM is feeling “very confident” on one issue at least: unless Miliband does a U-turn, the Tories are the only major party offering an in-out EU referendum. And if yesterday's Ukip triumph tells us anything, it is that Europe – in particular the issue of EU citizens' rights to move here for jobs – is high on the voters' agenda.