Last week’s Eastleigh by-election was hailed by many people – not least UKIP themselves – as a triumph for the UK Independence Party. But it was really a triumph for the Liberal Democrats.
It was, after all, the junior partners in the government coalition who won the seat. UKIP came second, an achievement that wasn’t so much good news for them as bad news for the Conservatives.
The Lib Dems won despite their part in a rightly unpopular government.
Despite the fact that the previous (and previously popular) holder of the seat had lost it over a well-publicised guilty plea to a charge of perverting the course of justice.
Despite the campaign being overshadowed, right up to polling-day, by some very seedy allegations indeed against the party’s former chief executive.
And despite the fact that they have clearly been displaced by UKIP as the party that attracts the protest vote.
Many people who voted Lib Dem in 2010 in protest against both the Labour government and the Tory opposition are highly unlikely to do it again.
And one hopes that few people would vote for UKIP if there was any danger of them actually getting into office. Or if anyone actually took the trouble to find out what they really stand for.
Their chinless leader, Nigel Farage, may be a decent comedy turn but he’s a deeply unappealing politician.
The funniest thing about his quip against the Tories – “now the party of gay marriage and windmills” – was that those are arguably the best things David Cameron and his party stand for. (Not that I think gay marriage is an issue worth troubling with. I find it equally baffling that any gay couple would think getting married mattered, or that anyone else would think it mattered to prevent them.)
Farage’s own party pretends to be a single-issue lobby against the European Union, the gravy train on which he and 11 of his colleagues are passengers. But it does profess other policies.
Policies which mostly fall into one or more of three categories: the barmy, the nasty and the deluded.
Their tax policies, for instance, would add up to a severe worsening of the country’s economic mess – and that’s before you even consider the potentially disastrous consequences of quitting Europe.
Their underlying theme is, surprise surprise, to benefit people like themselves – small to middling self-made businessmen. So, then, abolition of employers’contributions to National Insurance, inheritance tax and (unspecified) “taxes on small businesses”.
They want to reduce government spending drastically – yet spend 40 per cent more on defence and double the number of prison places.
It doesn’t come anywhere near adding up – except to a sense that they want to take over the Tories’ old mantle of Nasty Party.
They also want, somewhat irrelevantly, to repeal the ban on smoking in pubs and hold a referendum on the hunting ban. And, interestingly, to bring back student grants – which sounds superficially appealing but is totally inconsistent with their other financial ideas.
Their real doorstep appeal, though, is on immigration. And it’s there that their true xenophobic nastiness comes to the fore.
The point is quite well made by one of their former MEPs, who defected to the Conservatives during the Eastleigh campaign.
Spanish by passport, Argentinian by birth, and a woman, Marta Andreasen was always a somewhat eccentric UKIP member.
She explained her decision to quit the party like this: “I agree that there should be proper controls on immigration, but UKIP’s position on this – warning that millions of Bulgarians and Romanians would come to this country – was one of the things that contributed to my leaving the party.
“We were coming too close to the BNP. We were on the margins of the racists.”
Pretty narrow margins, I’d say.
The Bulgarian/Romanian question, of course, has yet to be proven either way.
It may be that, like so many Poles, they will come here, take a look, then go home again.
Or that, as with the Lithuanians and Latvians, their presence here in fairly small numbers relative to the UK population will be enough to cause real problems in the countries they have left.
As foreign secretary William Hague admits, any estimate of the number of Bulgarians and Romanians who will head for the UK once current restrictions end next year can only be guesswork.
Hague, understandably, wants to tackle what he calls “benefit tourism” – “so that people are not drawn to our country, or any country, just by being attracted to the benefits”.
Of course, Hague’s government has the answer to that in its hands. And one it sometimes seems intent on pursuing.
Wreck the benefits system entirely – and with it the NHS and the education system too – and no one will want to live here. Including those of us who already do.
That ought to suit Farage and his chums down to the depopulated, non-European ground.