Paris Gourtsoyannis: Ukip still setting the election agenda

The party whose greatest victory brought about irrelevance is still going to have a significant influence on the general election, writes Paris Gourtsoyannis

Ukip, formerly led by Nigel Farage, is standing just 277 candidates across the UK - its fewest since 1997
Ukip, formerly led by Nigel Farage, is standing just 277 candidates across the UK - its fewest since 1997

A neon-lit function room with a bland blue carpet and a low-hanging tile ceiling. Half a dozen journalists and a party spinner are spread out, not so much filling as getting lost in three long rows of community centre stacking chairs, facing a lonely podium in front of a vinyl poster.

Is this the launch of (Continuity) Liberal Party campaign? The gathering of a constituency Conservative Party somewhere unlikely, say Liverpool? No, this sorry scene was the national economic policy launch for Ukip yesterday. Yes, - the most powerful political party in Britain. The ones who topped the polls in the last European election, who forced a referendum on EU membership, who corralled voters who had never seen the inside of a ballot box to win it. The ones who polled 3.8 million votes in 2015 and seem to be on every other BBC Question Time panel.

Sign up to our Politics newsletter

The scene I described is a second-hand account - like most of the Westminster press lobby, I didn’t think Ukip’s economic policy would make much news or be of huge interest. Nor will the policies announced trouble the country as a whole. From winning more than one in ten votes two years ago, Ukip are polling at just 5 per cent and falling.

Even the party’s leaders are resigned to their irrelevance. The party is standing just 277 candidates across the UK, the fewest since 1997. After the local elections in England and Wales, when Ukip was all but wiped out, Paul Nuttall said it was a price worth paying to give the Tories a Brexit landslide.

But despite all that, Ukip looks like it will still end up setting the agenda in June. The Conservative landslide that looks increasingly likely on 8 June will largely be built on Ukip voters, many of whom already say they will back the Conservatives. Those that are keeping the faith may discover when they turn up at the ballot box that they have no Ukip candidate to vote for - so the party’s collapse could be even deeper than anticipated.

This is all very unfair on Jeremy Corbyn, who has so far done reasonably well, despite appointing a recently reformed communist to run his campaign, running over a cameraman’s foot and having shadow cabinet allies who struggle to give an interview.

Labour has deployed key messages on pensions, tuition fees and tax so that they break out of the political bubble and make it on to to the snippets of drivetime radio and evening TV news that most ordinary people absorb. Many of the policies that Labour have put forward are popular when voters are polled on them in isolation. And when Mr Corbyn has ventured on to difficult terrain, like he did with his Chatham House speech on defence and foreign policy, he has managed to explain himself well enough to cut through the hostile messages that most voters have already priced in.

The payoff has been a modest improvement in Labour’s polling, suggesting Mr Corbyn could actually do better than Ed Miliband in 2015. But with the bulk of Ukip voters making the switch to the Tories, it won’t have an impact on the result.

So thoroughly has Ukip changed the conversation in the UK, it is taking Remain voters with it. Analysis by YouGov found that while 45 per cent of the electorate could be described as true Brexit believers, the remaining 55 per cent were split, with more than half of the latter group taking a pragmatic pro-Brexit stance.

For parties that would have been expected to go into this election trumpeting their pro-EU credentials, that spells trouble. Across the UK, the Lib Dem fightback has so far struggled to achieve lift-off. There are few signs of an anti-Brexit insurgency in the polls. Senior party figures point to the 19 per cent national share of the vote achieved at the local election, but that vote was too scattered to deliver gains in council seats and was badly squeezed in areas that voted leave in the EU referendum.

That includes the party’s former south-west England heartland, where it might otherwise have hoped to recover, and the some of the handful of seats they are defending, like North Norfolk, where 58.9 per cent voted to leave the EU and where Ukip aren’t standing.

The Lib Dems have always been good at selling local messages in elections, and leader Tim Farron is trying to make life easier in those parts of England with his claim that he is “a bit of a eurosceptic”, but it will struggle to sell both messages.

The party must hope it can concentrate its vote in urban, Remain-voting constituencies where its pro-EU message will do best. The silver lining for the Lib Dems is that its top targets in Scotland fit the bill: Edinburgh West and East Dunbartonshire, and possibly North East Fife.

The Nationalists have also been confronted with the limitations of a Brexit response strategy that has energised its core supporters but isn’t broad enough to protect its gains at the last election. The SNP has limited experience of fighting a defensive campaign - until last year, its recent history was an unbroken forward march.

For the first time in a Westminster campaign, the party has delivered a message that works across the breadth of Scotland. In parts of the north-east, the pro-EU drum that Nicola Sturgeon has been beating since last year’s Brexit vote works against the party’s candidates.

Once again, Ukip can increase the SNP’s discomfort in places like Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk, where Calum Kerr was just 328 votes ahead of the Tories in 2015, the eighth smallest majority in the UK.

Ukip won more than 1,300 votes two years ago. They aren’t standing this time.

Just like Mr Farron, the First Minister has had to try and reconcile her calls for an independence referendum in response to Brexit with the wishes of many in her own party who are happy to be out of the EU.

The result was a series of uncomfortable interviews on Sunday morning in which Ms Sturgeon finally conceded that an independent Scotland might make do with the halfway house of European Free Trade Association membership. Ukip’s obituaries have been written. But its last boozy lunch could be at its wake.