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.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.