Nigel Farage is doing his best to steal the limelight from George Osborne today with a stringe of fringe appearances outside the Conservative secure zone. He quipped to cheers at one event: "If Godfrey Bloom disrupted my conference, I like to think I'm disrupting and ruining David Cameron's."
But it was on Radio 4 earlier today that Farage's most notable comments came. After reaffirming his support for local non-aggression pacts between Tory and UKIP candidates in today's Times, he told the World At One that he estimated that "a couple of dozen" Conservative MPs would be open to agreement. Tory MP Philip Hollobone, who won the backing of UKIP in 2010, went on to describe Farage's figure as "spot on".
Conservative ministers have done their best to play down talk of deals today, but Farage's comments are a reminder of why the idea won't go way, particularly if UKIP win the European elections next year, or at least outperform the Tories. At a fractious fringe meeting with Farage earlier today, Bill Cash warned that UKIP could cost the Tories up to 60 seats and hand Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street. "Let us be realistic. Are we going to be allies or enemies? Lay off our marginals," he said.
While UKIP is unlikely to inflict as much damage on the Tories as Cash fears, the split in the right-wing vote (UKIP draws around half of its support from 2010 Tory supporters), will make it easier for Labour to dislodge the Tories in the marginals it needs to win to become the largest party. At the last election, with a UKIP share of just 3 per cent, there were 20 constituencies in which the party's vote exceeded the Labour majority (one shouldn't make the error of assuming that all those who supported the party would have backed the Tories in its absence, but many would have done). Should UKIP poll at least 5-6%, around half of its current support, it could well indirectly propel Labour to victory. And that is why talk of pacts will continue right up until May 2015.