Nigel Farage, pictured during the Newark by-election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Ukip still claim Labour will promise an EU referendum - but what if they're wrong?

Farage needs to explain why he could prevent the referendum he has always wanted. 

Ukip may no longer be a single-issue party, but it still has a defining cause: the withdrawal of Britain from the European Union. Twenty years after it was founded, David Cameron finally gave the party what it wanted last year: a promise of an in/out referendum.

The PM’s pledge created an awkward question for Nigel Farage: why, if you want a vote so badly, are you helping to stop the Tories (who have promised one), rather than Labour (who haven’t), winning the general election? As is well known, despite Farage’s protestations to the contrary, Ukip draws nearly half of its support from 2010 Conservative voters. The divided right, combined with a more unified left, could gift Ed Miliband the keys to Downing Street.

To this, Farage had a simple reply: after the European elections, and Ukip’s victory, Labour, too, would be forced to promise a referendum. He said in April: "The way to get a referendum on Europe is to beat Labour in May and force Ed Miliband to promise a vote on Europe if he becomes Prime Minister. If both the big parties promise a referendum, we should get one. That's why all our concentration is on Labour in the next few weeks."

The elections came, and Ukip triumphed, but Miliband did not waver. Rather than matching Cameron’s pledge (as some on his own side demanded), he maintained that a Labour government would only hold a referendum in the unlikely event of a further transfer of powers to Brussels. Miliband, who rightly believes that he has a good chance of becoming prime minister, is not prepared to allow the opening years of his premiership to be dominated by a vote that he would struggle to win, and that could force his resignation. For a guaranteed referendum, the public will have to back the Tories.

So what does Ukip say now? When I asked a spokesman earlier today, I was told: 

Labour have a near blank manifesto, and as the general election fast approaches, we expect their stance on the EU will change as their hopes of an overall majority continue to fall apart. Just like the Conservatives they are haemorrhaging votes to Ukip. The wise decision would therefore surely be to offer a referendum.

In fact, as I’ve argued before, there are many more reasons for Labour not to offer one, but leave that aside; the question Ukip must answer is: "what if you’re wrong?" Unlike Cameron, Miliband does not lurch, he does not U-turn. When a stance is adopted, typically in the form of a detailed speech, it is maintained. With Labour far more united than the Tories on Europe (a reversal of the situation in 1975), there is no prospect of Miliband coming under comparable internal pressure to Cameron.

The answer to that question was provided in the second half of the spokesman’s response: "The only reason the Tories are even discussing a referendum is due the threat of Ukip. However nobody else can be trusted on this issue. Both coalition partners went into the election promising a referendum, yet when the government came together the Lib Dems blamed the small print of their leaflet for withdrawing the offer and Cameron showed that his cast-iron guarantee was also just hot air. The only way to get anything other than an empty promise on the EU is to vote Ukip."

Based on Cameron’s past failure to deliver a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (after it was approved by EU member states before the Tories entered office in 2010), Ukip argue that he can’t be trusted this time round. It is precisely to counter such claims that Cameron has vowed to resign as prime minister if he is unable to deliver a vote on EU membership. Such is the (understandable) cynicism of the electorate, that even this may not be enough. But as the general election approaches, there are at least some Ukip voters who will ask why the party is scuppering their chance to have their say in 2017. If he is to retain their support, Farage needs to come up with a better answer soon.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Ukip's Nigel Farage and Paul Nuttall. Photo: Getty
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Is the general election 2017 the end of Ukip?

Ukip led the way to Brexit, but now the party is on less than 10 per cent in the polls. 

Ukip could be finished. Ukip has only ever had two MPs, but it held an outside influence on politics: without it, we’d probably never have had the EU referendum. But Brexit has turned Ukip into a single-issue party without an issue. Ukip’s sole remaining MP, Douglas Carswell, left the party in March 2017, and told Sky News’ Adam Boulton that there was “no point” to the party anymore. 

Not everyone in Ukip has given up, though: Nigel Farage told Peston on Sunday that Ukip “will survive”, and current leader Paul Nuttall will be contesting a seat this year. But Ukip is standing in fewer constituencies than last time thanks to a shortage of both money and people. Who benefits if Ukip is finished? It’s likely to be the Tories. 

Is Ukip finished? 

What are Ukip's poll ratings?

Ukip’s poll ratings peaked in June 2016 at 16 per cent. Since the leave campaign’s success, that has steadily declined so that Ukip is going into the 2017 general election on 4 per cent, according to the latest polls. If the polls can be trusted, that’s a serious collapse.

Can Ukip get anymore MPs?

In the 2015 general election Ukip contested nearly every seat and got 13 per cent of the vote, making it the third biggest party (although is only returned one MP). Now Ukip is reportedly struggling to find candidates and could stand in as few as 100 seats. Ukip leader Paul Nuttall will stand in Boston and Skegness, but both ex-leader Nigel Farage and donor Arron Banks have ruled themselves out of running this time.

How many members does Ukip have?

Ukip’s membership declined from 45,994 at the 2015 general election to 39,000 in 2016. That’s a worrying sign for any political party, which relies on grassroots memberships to put in the campaigning legwork.

What does Ukip's decline mean for Labour and the Conservatives? 

The rise of Ukip took votes from both the Conservatives and Labour, with a nationalist message that appealed to disaffected voters from both right and left. But the decline of Ukip only seems to be helping the Conservatives. Stephen Bush has written about how in Wales voting Ukip seems to have been a gateway drug for traditional Labour voters who are now backing the mainstream right; so the voters Ukip took from the Conservatives are reverting to the Conservatives, and the ones they took from Labour are transferring to the Conservatives too.

Ukip might be finished as an electoral force, but its influence on the rest of British politics will be felt for many years yet. 

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