What will convince a newspaper to give Farage their backing?
Will a mooted by-election in Sutton Coldfield give Farage his media breakthrough, asks Nigel Horne
WHAT if a national newspaper were to jump on the UKIP bandwagon and call on its readers to abandon the Conservatives and vote Farage at the next general election?
"Something real is happening out there," Farage said after Thursday's success in the Eastleigh by-election. "People are going out there and voting UKIP."
With a mass-circulation newspaper - or two - behind him, might something real translate into something exceptional?
Much depends on whether Farage and his team can persuade the media to recalibrate their view of the political landscape between now and 2015 and accept that UKIP is more than a single-issue (immigration) protest party and has a real connection with voters.
The title that looked most like a UKIP newspaper yesterday was the Mail on Sunday. Its front page headline was straight from the party song book, celebrating 'A great day for British justice' with the news that Theresa May had pledged to take Britain out of the "discredited" European Convention on Human Rights.
A few pages later, we had the headline: 'Romanians and Bulgarians snap up 175,000 jobs in UK already... and that's before border have even opened'. Again, classic UKIP comfort food.
Unsurprisingly, Farage chose the Mail on Sunday's political editor Simon Walters to pass on the message that after Eastleigh he now intends to "go one better" and try to win a by-election in his own right before the 2015 general election.
Friends of Farage say he bitterly regrets not standing in Eastleigh himself, Walters reported. While the chosen candidate Diane James did extremely well to come second behind the Lib Dems, Farage's popularity is such that he might actually have won the seat.
Yet Walters buried Farage's by-election dream within a piece about David Cameron invoking the spirit of Sir Keith Joseph and promising to pursue "common ground" policies in a bid to reconnect with ordinary Conservative voters.
And Walters gave his summing-up paragraph not to Farage or one of his acolytes, but to an anonymous "confidant" of Cameron, who said: "It is high time Farage's fantasy politics and economics of the mad house are exposed.
"Just because you smoke and drink pints at 11 am [a reference to Farage's habit of holding court at the Marquis of Granby pub near his London HQ] does not make you a good leader. When UKIP is subjected to scrutiny, they will crumble."
This suggests (a) that Farage is a little too nutty for the Mail's taste and (b) that the political-journalistic establishment still sees Farage as a flash in the pan who will be forgotten once Cameron gets his act together or passes on the baton.
But Adam Boulton, political editor of Sky News, believes Farage and UKIP should not be dismissed so easily after humiliating the "natural parties of government" last Thursday.
Even before Eastleigh, UKIP was looking more serious, said Boulton, writing a guest column in the Sunday Times. Farage's party will soon be moving into new offices off Bond Street. It has a new chief executive, the former RAF fighter pilot and IT expert Will Gilpin, and a new campaigns boss, Lisa Duffy, credited with putting together a highly professional team of canvassers in Eastleigh. "I didn't spot any Major Ronald Vole-trousers Ret'd in UKIP's ranks," said Boulton.
He then urged us to remember that Britain is no longer a two-party state. The "fringe vote" - i.e non-Conservative, non-Labour - was just three per cent in the 1950s. Today, the Lib Dems and the Scottish Nationalists are in government and even the Greens have an MP.
"With the Tories split on Europe, and the voters disillusioned with conventional politics," said Boulton, "the potential is there for Farage and his followers to move from disruptive force to breakthrough."
That breakthrough could come with the 2014 European Parliament elections which YouGov's Peter Kellner believes will see a battle between UKIP and Labour for first place.
Then there's that by-election Farage wants to win. An opportunity could come later next year in Sutton Coldfield if – as has been rumoured - Cameron offers sitting MP Andrew Mitchell (of Plebgate fame) the role of EU commissioner, due to be vacated by Baroness Ashton.
Sutton Coldfield is one of the safest Tory seats in the country. But Eastleigh has shown nothing is sacred. Could this be where Farage makes the breakthrough Boulton is predicting and where Fleet Street readjusts to a new political landscape? ·