Farage Number 10? pic.twitter.com/NF05OOYWVL
— PolPics (@PolPics) January 25, 2014
David Herdson on a nightmare or a dream
The toothy beaming smile said it all. The new prime minister stood on the steps of Downing Street and waved to nobody in particular but it was what the assembled media wanted anyway. They were as stunned at the result as everyone else. True, the polls a few days before had been predicting it but no-one really believed them did they? Polls had been wrong before. They couldn’t elect him – him – to lead the country could they? The evidence before their eyes told them not only that they could but that they had.
It had been the culmination of the most dramatic year in British politics for generations, if not centuries. The May 2014 elections had seen UKIP not only top the poll in the European elections but push Labour close in the local elections too. Those elections had been a disaster for the governing parties, each losing a sizable proportion of their councillors, the Conservatives finishing the European elections a poor third and the Lib Dems ending up an even worse fifth, with fewer MEPs than the Scottish nationalists.
The story of the summer however was the rise of UKIP. Their 31% poll in the European elections had to some extent been anticipated but it was the crossover into the local elections which gave some idea of the earthquakes to come. By mid-June, Farage’s party was polling over 20% in Westminster voting intention, Labour down in the low 30s and the Conservatives back in the 20s. Westminster party strategists said that it was a temporary effect that would wear off when politics as normal resumed; that the systemic advantages of the established parties was too strong. But the public was not really in the mood for the establishment.
If the summer belonged to UKIP, the autumn had belonged even more emphatically to the SNP. The Yes campaign struggled for a long time to gain traction but as in 2011, the turnaround came late and decisively, prompted by a barnstorming performance by Alex Salmond in his TV debate with Alistair Darling. ‘No’ never recovered the momentum, their arguments sounding flat and defensive, and the referendum passed with a majority of just over 4%.
All three main Westminster parties reacted by hitting the panic button. The Lib Dem conference revolted against their leadership and forced a vote on withdrawing from the coalition, which just failed, 52 to 48, leaving the party bitterly split. The Conservatives fell into a new bout of infighting, with any number of groups, MPs and nominal supporters offering their own pet rescue plan. Between the two, the number of rebellious MPs made governing nigh-on impossible (a fact that had mitigated against leadership changes, despite the copious talk of them). Labour, meanwhile, stunned by the Scottish vote and the prospect of losing their several dozen MPs there, tried to turn up the pressure on the faltering government.
They might have succeeded too, had not Farage been making a better job of it. Miliband, Balls and the rest had just sounded too much like insiders, talking insiders’ talk. It hadn’t mattered so much what UKIP was for, the simple fact that they weren’t the others and sounded half-normal was enough. Attacks from the Westminster insiders simply reinforced the division.
The papers – as ever, running to catch up with opinion – cemented UKIP’s promotion to the big league. The Express was the first to endorse the party for 2015. More significant was The Mail and Telegraph following suit. Buoyed by the credibility of the endorsements, and the improved coverage it brought, January saw UKIP top the polls for the first time, as well as their first by-election victory and the recruitment of several big donors. That was enough for The Sun to add their name to the list, the Murdoch empire being primarily interested – after sales – in keeping the hostile Miliband out.
That same thinking prompted Sky into pre-empting the BBC and ITV to announce four-way Prime Ministerial debates. Farage – conscious of UKIP’s weakness on the ground – had accepted immediately, as had Clegg, desperate for any chance of recovery. Cameron and Miliband hedged for a while in the hope the debates wouldn’t go ahead at all but public pressure forced their hands too in the end.
Their reticence had been well-judged. The three Westminster politicians all sounded alike: smooth, polished and adept at blaming each other’s governments for any and every problem; politicians giving politicians’ answers. Farage hadn’t and while he tripped up a couple of times, that had simply reinforced the opinion of both those who would never vote UKIP, and those determined to do so.
Polling day saw the highest turnout since 1997, with no-one at all sure of what would happen. By 11pm, it was clear that it was something momentous, when Houghton and Sunderland South maintained their record of being first to declare. Labour held the seat on a reduced share but UKIP polled over a third of the vote, finishing a good second. The Tories just scraped into double figures; the Lib Dems lost their deposit. Psephologists across the country went into meltdown.
That would be the story across England and Wales that night. North of the border, the voters put their trust in the SNP, not wanting to send a mixed message in the independence negotiations. By the end of Friday, UKIP had amassed 245 seats on 35% of the vote, Labour 208 (27 in Scotland) on 28%, the Conservatives 138 with 25%, with SNP 29, Lib Dem 8, Plaid 4 and the 18 Northern Irish. David Cameron resigned that evening and in line with normal constitutional practice, the Queen sent for the leader of the largest party – though as with Ramsay MacDonald, before asking him to form a government, she first had to appoint him to the Privy Council.
Then Nigel woke up and found it was all a dream. Maybe.