Ukip leader Nigel Farage. Source: Getty
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A bad press for Farage doesn't automatically help the Tories

Conservatives are desperate for Ukip to falter but they may be underestimating the stubborness of the anti-politics vote.

It cannot do Nigel Farage good to have his character and finances queried on the front page of the Times for a second consecutive day. The question is how much harm it does. Some Ukip supporters will be receptive to the party’s line of rebuttal, which is that the whole thing is a smear by agents of the Tory party disguised as journalists. After all, wouldn’t it be just like the Establishment to use its house journal to attack the leader of anti-Establishment resistance?

That defence has the virtue of consistency with Ukip’s wider message, but it also comes across as cranky. The list that the party published yesterday of links between senior figures at the Times and the Conservative party is in the idiom of conspiracy theory website. The same technique, applied with a little more imagination, could probably be used to demonstrate that Times journalists are connected to 9/11 and Mossad.

Clearly, Ukip doesn’t enjoy being treated like other political parties, which is to be expected from a party that touts itself as the antidote to politics. Less clear is how resilient Farage is to such treatment. There is a certain kind of populist swagger that is immune to bad news. Scandal, gaffe and embarrassment bounce off the likes of Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi (in his hey day). Perhaps the Ukip leader is made of similar non-stick stuff?

The Tories hope not. The party has a notional plan for clawing back support from Ukip but there isn’t much evidence yet that it works. The method is to remind Farageist voters over and over again that the kinds of things they like – a tougher immigration policy; a referendum on leaving the EU; benefit crackdowns – can only be delivered in practice by a Conservative administration. A ballot cast for Ukip only nourishes the Europhile Ed Miliband. Some errant Tories can be wooed back to Cameron’s camp with this argument but not, I suspect, as many as the party’s strategists hope.

The mistake that some Conservatives make is in thinking that Ukip, being a relatively new party, commands tenuous loyalty. In this view, the smaller the body in the political firmament, the weaker its gravitational pull; so if a giant, such as the Tory party, moves in close, voters are dragged into its orbit. This is the traditional arrogance of the ancient party towards parvenu challengers and recedent suggests it is misplaced. The presumption that voters have nowhere else to go is usually wrong, as Labour has found in many of its former seats now held by Liberal Democrats; also in Bradford (Respect); in Brighton (Green) and, above all, in Scotland, where the demise of the Tories accompanied a surge in Nationalist support.

The tidy Labour-Conservative duopoly has been slowly unravelling since the 1950s. There remain strains of ancestral allegiance in the electorate. There are families where the political stripes of Blue or Red are worn tribally, like football colours. But that trend is in decline. Anyone who has interrogated voting intentions on the street – whether during the various by-elections of this parliament or at other times – will testify to high levels of contempt for politics in general and the more familiar parties in particular. One such recent conversation stuck in my mind. On a trip to Cambridge I got into a conversation about politics with a woman – early 30s, with young children – who had voted Lib Dem in 2010. The reason: “They had never been in before.” That attachment had since been shed. The current intention was to not vote at all or to support Ukip, because “they’ll shut the gates.”

Anecdote is a poor instrument in political forecasting but the episode was instructive as a reminder that people do not follow the laws of uniform swing that party strategists want them to obey. I have had numerous similar conversations: a Muslim taxi driver from Slough who is voting Ukip because the newer class of immigrant is giving the more established immigrant communities a bad name; a nurse in Manchester who is voting Ukip in protest against government cuts, the bedroom tax and high energy bills. (Miliband’s campaigning on those issues was discounted because Labour “caused all of the problems.”)

Voting intentions are rarely set by comparing a list of personal policy preferences with a party’s menu of promises and plumping for the best match. The Tory strategy for winning support back from Ukip presumes people have some flowchart in their heads that chases specific aims and arrives at the conclusion that returning a Tory MP is the most efficient way to see those aims realised. But what if one of the overriding aims is not to support the Tories? What if the function of voting is not to choose the government, because governing parties - “they” - are all the same, but rather to express a preference for none of “them”?

In that case, the exposure of Farage as a charlatan, or just another politician, will not be sufficient to steer voters back to more mainstream candidates. It is a fallacy to think that all Ukip supporters are the lost sheep of Labour or Conservative parties who have gone wandering mid-term and can be rounded up in time for a general election. It is also a mistake to try telling them they are Tories and just haven’t noticed it yet. Some MPs have realised this and wonder whether the penny has dropped in No10. “The leadership is terrified of Farage and doesn’t really have a clue what to do about him,” one young backbencher recently told me. Another prominent Conservative warns that anger against Cameron and the political elite is entrenched enough that even a rising economic tide will not wash it away: “It can’t be bought off with an improvement in living conditions.” (A view the same source describes as “deeply seditious” in terms of the official party narrative.)

If Ukip loses its anti-Establishment allure, there is no guarantee that its votes will seep back to the old parties. Farage didn’t create the anti-politics mood in the country, nor does he own it. Meanwhile, David Cameron hopes that voters who doubt Ed Miliband is up to being Prime Minister will come to realise that the Tories are the only credible option on the ballot paper. He may be disappointed. The lesson of recent history – in by-elections; general elections; local elections; European elections – is that large swathes of the British public really don’t need much encouragement to vote something other than Conservative.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war