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Another Tory defects to Ukip and this time it's personal (a personal friend)

A report published today suggests that Ukip will retain more than half its current support at the General Election.

According to the Telegraph:

Researchers found that 57.6 per cent of people who vote for Ukip in the elections for the European Parliament intend to stay loyal to the party at the General Election in May next year.

The level of sustained support for Nigel Farage's party appears to contradict claims by senior Conservatives, who have repeatedly suggested that any success that Ukip enjoys will be because they are attracting protest votes.

See: General election 2015: Will this be Ukip's year? (Telegraph)

As it happens I went to a Ukip meeting last Friday. Entry was free but you had to pre-register. A friend of mine got tickets - Farage was speaking - and it seemed rude not to go.

I was curious too. Nigel has spoken at several Forest events but I wanted to see him address a predominantly Ukip audience.

Well, the Burgess Hall in St Ives near Cambridge was packed. The car park was full and we had to park on the grass in an overflow area.

We arrived ten minutes before the scheduled start and stood at the back, unable to find a seat. I recognised at least two friendly faces – Tim Aker and Michael McGough – and said hello.

There was a range of age groups, though it would be fair to say the majority were middle-aged or older.

"Fruitcakes" and "nutters" were thin on the ground - or being remarkably discreet, which hardly fits the stereotype.

Two minutes before the meeting began we were asked to move, "for health and safety reasons".

We were taken upstairs to a large L-shaped balcony that overlooked the hall. Even there it was standing room only and a line of chairs kept us as far from the stage as possible in case we were tempted to throw something.

When the meeting began there were four people on stage - the regional Ukip chairman; Patrick O'Flynn, former political editor at the Daily Express and now a Ukip candidate in the European elections; Paul Sykes, the businessman who paid for the Ukip posters on immigration; and - to my surprise - Daily Mail journalist Simon Heffer.

Heffer was the first speaker. O'Flynn, touted as a potential successor to Farage, was next. Like Heffer, he was quietly effective. Then it was Farage's turn.

The Ukip leader entered the hall to a warm rather than rapturous reception and did what he does very well. He engaged with the audience and they clearly liked him, but some of his gags are wearing a little thin if you've heard them before.

The principal butt of his jokes is Nick Clegg and it's clear that Ukip hope to push the Lib Dems into fourth place in terms of votes at the General Election. Whether that translates into seats is another matter. Farage admitted that Ukip's best strategy for General Elections is to target certain areas, as the Lib Dems have done, which could take years to bear fruit.

Then it was time for questions selected at random from a plastic purple bucket. Needless to say the questions were all directed at Farage which must have been galling for O'Flynn who became increasingly anonymous as the evening went on.

The mood of the meeting was neither euphoric nor triumphant. There was little sense of rebellion either.

In fact, despite the regular applause, I thought it was a bit muted. I sensed not an uprising but the sadness of people who feel disenfranchised and Ukip, for all its faults, is the only credible alternative.

The electorate isn't stupid, though. Even the hundreds of people who turned out on a Friday night in Cambridgeshire - quite an achievement, I should add - know the party's limitations.

We left a few minutes before the end to avoid a mini stampede and a potential traffic jam.

On the way home my friend spoke warmly of Farage and praised his speech. I thought it was good but unremarkable. Gary dismissed my comments. "You're the most cynical person in the world," he scoffed.

So let me tell you a bit about my friend Gary.

I've known him for a long time, we were at university together. When he graduated Gary got a job with Arthur Andersen (now Accenture). Then he joined the army, training at Sandhurst, serving in Northern Ireland.

I visited him once. It was a strange weekend. I stayed in the Officers Mess and it was all very civilised. However, as soon as we left the security of the base, in an unmarked car, reality hit home.

Two-thirds of the Province was out of bounds for off duty members of the British army so sightseeing was restricted to a well-trodden route between Belfast and Giants Causeway.

When he left the army Gary studied for an MBA and became an IT consultant. Today he describes himself as a digital monetiser.

Significantly – and this is the point of the story so hang in there – when I first met him Gary was an active member of the Federation of Conservative Students. Years later – after he left the army – he became a Conservative councillor on Watford Council.

In the 1992 General Election he stood as the Tory candidate in Eccles, a safe Labour seat in Greater Manchester. (A week before Election Day he interrupted his campaign to attend my wedding in Glasgow!)

Having tried and failed to get selected for a safe seat (he came second to the chosen candidate in five Conservative seats) he refused to sulk and spent the '97 Election campaign working as a paid official for the Scottish Conservative party in Edinburgh.

In short, no-one could have grafted so hard for the Conservative cause or nailed their colours so firmly to the Tory mast. He even joined the army to give himself a better chance of becoming a Tory MP. How's that for dedication!

Eventually even Gary's renowned optimism deserted him. His interest in current affairs has never waned (he's a newsaholic) but he became disillusioned with UK politics in general and the Conservative party in particular.

Today his enthusiasm for party politics has returned and the reason, unlikely as it seems to a cynic like me, is Ukip.

I've yet to make that journey myself but there are hundreds of thousands of people just like Gary – many of them holding the balance of power in marginal seats – and here's the rub.

Friday night demonstrated that even in a Conservative heartland like Huntingdonshire, Ukip is engaging with people in a way the three mainstream parties can only dream about.

I don't think Farage was on top form but he was still an engaging presence. More important, sharing the platform with him were two serious political journalists, one a supporter, the other a Ukip candidate in his own right.

Just as significant is the extent to which the mainstream parties – Conservative and Labour – continue to haemorrhage supporters to the new kid on the block.

I'm still not convinced Ukip will be with us in ten or 15 years (I hope not because it will mean we are still in the EU!), but the fact that my old friend has abandoned any thought of voting for the party he worked so hard for and represented for so many years in favour of a party with no MPs and no prospect of even sharing power for a generation or more says a lot about David Cameron's ability to alienate traditional Tory voters.

And as today's study shows, they won't be returning any time soon.

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Reader Comments (1)

It's not just about the EU - #WeSmokeWeVote and unless Labour or the Conservatives wake up to that fact - and stop ignoring us - then UKIP's meteoric rise will continue unabated.

UKIP says NO NANNY and so we say YES UKIP

Thursday, May 8, 2014 at 7:25 | Unregistered CommenterPat Nurse

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