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Farage tries to shed his Thatcherite skin

Ukip leader says "For half the country it benefited them, for the other half it didn't."

Ukip leader says "For half the country it benefited them, for the other half it didn't."
Nigel Farage shows a mug that was presented to him before signing a book of condolence for Margaret Thatcher. Photograph: Getty Images.

After Margaret Thatcher's death last year, Nigel Farage declared that he was the only politician "keeping the flame of Thatcherism alive". But as Ukip has achieved increasing success in working class Labour areas (where Thatcher is regarded as a villain), Farage has recognised the need to shift his rhetoric - and his policies. Asked on The Andrew Marr Show this morning if he was the leader of a "new Thatcherite party", he replied:

No, because that was of its time. Thatcherism was of its time, 40 years ago, to deal with a specific set of problems. For half the country it benefited them, for the other half it didn't.

He went on to confirm that Ukip had abandoned its previous policy of a flat tax of 31 per cent, which would have entailed a huge giveaway to the richest, and pledged to take anyone earning the minimum wage out of income tax.

We're going to rethink the tax thing [flat tax], I think that was badly explained, because people thought we were going to put tax up for the low-paid, no, the idea was to abolish National Insurance. What I can tell you for certain is that our biggest tax objective in the next manifesto will be no tax on the minimum wage. You've got to incentivise people to get off benefits and get back to work. That will obviously cost money.

Asked if the cost of tax cuts for the low-paid meant there would be no reductions for higher-earners, he said: "I think a top rate of tax, in this country, of around about 40 per cent is the one that will bring the most revenue into the Exchequer, I think through the 80s and 90s we saw that...Anything over 40 and you start to see people going overseas."

That of course would be a reduction from the current rate of 45 per cent, allowing Labour to attack Farage for promising a "millionaire's tax cut", but it still represents a shift left from Ukip's previous stance. Farage also wisely withdrew his previous suggestion that he would remove the ring-fence on NHS spending.

These stances will antagonise the party's libertarian wing but they are politically astute. Far from craving a laissez-faire approach, most of Ukip's supporters favour an expanded state and higher public spending. Polling by YouGov shows that 78 per cent support the nationalisation of the energy companies and 73 per cent back the renationalisation of the railways. Rather than a "code of conduct" for employers (as promised by Farage), 57 per cent simply want zero-hours contracts to be banned. Rather than a 40p top tax rate, the same number support the reintroduction of the 50p rate. 

Given Ukip's success in attracting working class supporters, it makes no sense for the party to alienate them by adopting a programme of turbo-Thatcherism. In this era of insecurity, there is a large market for a party that combines hostility towards the EU and immigration with a critical stance towards big business. As Farage and his allies know, it is this approach that has enabled the Front National to achieve such success in France.  

Wary of attacking Ukip over its stances on Europe and immigration, Labour has recently focused on campaigning against its free market policies (branding Farage "more Thatcherite than Thatcher"). But if the party's drift to the left continues, it will become much harder to do so.