Ukip overtakes Lib Dems as third most popular party

The latest YouGov poll puts the Eurosceptic outfit above Nick Clegg's party.

Ukip may never have won a seat in the House of Commons, but today it has overtaken the Liberal Democrats as the third most popular party, if a YouGov poll for the Sun is to be believed.

The daily poll puts Nigel Farage’s party on nine per cent, one point ahead of the Lib Dems, who have eight per cent of the vote. While Ukip has consistently polled close behind Nick Clegg’s party since the 2010 election, this appears to be the first time it has actually closed the gap overall. (One YouGov poll last year put them ahead among 18-24 year olds, but not overall).

As with any unusual result, it is worth noting that this could be an outlier. A Populus poll in the Times (£), also out today, keeps the Lib Dems safely in third place with 11 per cent of the vote.

However, it would be foolish to write off the result entirely, given that this has been on the cards for the last six months at least. In some ways, it is hardly surprising. The Lib Dems have traditionally been the beneficiaries of protest votes from those unenamoured with the two main parties, a support base it lost when it entered government. While many disillusioned Liberal Democrat voters went to Labour, Ukip benefited from those seeking a more anti-establishment alternative.

Conversely, Tory right-wingers frustrated at the perceived softness of their party in coalition may also be switching allegiance. As Antony Wells explains at UK Polling Report, there may be some more immediate factors too:

A third, more short term cause is probably the granny tax: we’ve seen significant drops in Conservative support and increases in support for UKIP amongst over 60s since the Budget and older people have always been by far the most likely group to vote UKIP.

It is certainly a boost for Farage’s party ahead of May’s local elections, though it remains unlikely that this will be translated into seats in parliament in the next general election. However, as my colleague Rafael Behr argued last year, increasing support for Ukip could shape future policy, particularly on Europe:

One factor that could really change the dynamic is the performance of Ukip - or rather, Nigel Farage's party's anticipated performance in 2014 European elections . . . Conservative strategists are, apparently, very worried about what that might mean for a poll that is due just a year before the next general election. It is feasible to imagine that, come 2014, Cameron will be more afraid of Farage's populist, nationalist agitation beyond the gates of his coalition than Clegg's cosmopolitan Europhile hand-wringing within.

It is entirely possible that Ukip will not sustain its lead in tomorrow’s YouGov/Sun poll – but this is a significant vote share for a minor party, and clearly, it cannot be entirely dismissed.
 

Ukip supporters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament, London, October 2011. Photograph: Getty Images

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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How the Conservatives lost the argument over austerity

After repeatedly missing their deficit targets, the Tories can no longer present spending cuts as essential.

“The age of irresponsibility is giving way to the age of austerity,” declared David Cameron at the Conservatives' 2009 spring conference. Fear of spending cuts helped deny his party a majority a year later, but by 2015 the Tories claimed vindication. By framing austerity as unavoidable, they had trapped Labour in a political no man's land. Though voters did not relish cuts, polling consistently showed that they regarded them as necessary.

But only two years later, it is the Conservatives who appear trapped. An austerity-weary electorate has deprived them of their majority and the argument for fiscal restraint is growing weaker by the day. If cuts are the supposed rule, then the £1bn gifted to the Democratic Unionist Party is the most glaring exception. Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, sought to justify this largesse as "investment" into "the infrastructure of Northern Ireland" from "which everybody will benefit" – a classic Keynesian argument. But this did not, he hastened to add, mean the end of austerity: "Austerity is never over until we clear the deficit."

Britain's deficit (which peaked at £153bn in 2009-10) was the original and pre-eminent justification for cuts. Unless borrowing was largely eliminated by 2015, George Osborne warned, Britain's public finances would become unsustainable. But as time has passed, this argument has become progressively weaker. The UK has cumulatively borrowed £200bn more than promised by Osborne, yet apocalypse has been averted. With its low borrowing costs, an independent currency and a lender of last resort (the Bank of England), the UK is able to tolerate consistent deficits (borrowing stood at £46.6bn in 2016-17).

In defiance of all this, Osborne vowed to achieve a budget surplus by 2019-20 (a goal achieved by the UK in just 12 years since 1948). The Tories made the target in the knowledge that promised tax cuts and spending increases would make it almost impossible to attain – but it was a political weapon with which to wound Labour.

Brexit, however, forced the Conservatives to disarm. Mindful of the economic instability to come, Philip Hammond postponed the surplus target to 2025 (15 years after Osborne's original goal). Britain's past and future borrowing levels mean the deficit has lost its political potency.

In these circumstances, it is unsurprising that voters are increasingly inclined to look for full-scale alternatives. Labour has remade itself as an unambiguously anti-austerity party and Britain's public realm is frayed from seven years of cuts: overburdened schools and hospitals, dilapidated infrastructure, potholed roads, uncollected bins.

Through a shift in rhetoric, Theresa May acknowledged voters' weariness with austerity but her policies did not match. Though the pace of cuts was slowed, signature measures such as the public sector pay cap and the freeze in working-age benefits endured. May's cold insistence to an underpaid nurse that there was no "magic money tree" exemplified the Tories' predicament.

In his recent Mansion House speech, Philip Hammond conceded that voters were impatient "after seven years of hard slog” but vowed to "make anew the case" for austerity. But other Tories believe they need to stop fighting a losing battle. The Conservatives' historic strength has been their adaptability. Depending on circumstance, they have been Europhile and Eurosceptic, statist and laissez-faire, isolationist and interventionist. If the Tories are to retain power, yet another metamorphosis may be needed: from austerity to stimulus.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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