Nigel Farage during the Newark by-election count. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why the Tories have picked the wrong man to take on Farage

Rather than choosing a former Ukip leader as their candidate in South Thanet, the party should have selected a liberal figure capable of winning tactical votes. 

With a whimper, rather than a bang, Nigel Farage has confirmed that he is standing for selection as Ukip's candidate in South Thanet. After the local party secretary rather unhelpfully leaked the news to the FT last week, the announcement is tucked away at the bottom of his Independent column today. He writes: "Of course I think I stand a good chance of winning. I have fought the seat before and it is in my home county of Kent and an area I have represented in the European Parliament since 1999."

Farage finished fourth when he stood in the Tory-held seat in 2005, and only managed third place when he ran in John Bercow's Buckingham constituency in 2010, but he is right to believe he can improve on both of these performances. A recent Lord Ashcroft poll put Ukip in first place in South Thanet and the party won seven out of eight seats on the county council last May, leaving the Tories without a single representative. 

Aware that Farage was likely to stand in the constituency, the Tories acted pre-emptively by selecting former Ukip leader and deputy leader Craig Mackinlay as their PPC (sitting MP Laura Sandys is standing down). The logic is clear: by choosing a robust eurosceptic as their candidate, the Tories hope to prevent right-leaning voters from defecting to the purple army.  

But the strategy is a questionable one. To win the seat, where they currently hold a 7,617 majority, the Tories would have been wiser to select a liberal candidate capable of winning tactical votes from Labour and Lib Dem supporters. In the recent Newark by-election, a significant number of centre-left voters held their noses and voted Conservative on the grounds that it was the best means of stopping Farage's party. One compared it to backing Jacques Chirac against Jean-Marie Le Pen in the 2002 French presidential election. Another said: "I've never voted Tory in my life, but I'm not having those bastards [Ukip] getting in". 

It may be that such voters are prepared to back Mackinlay. But it is worth remembering how poorly Tory candidate Maria Hutchings performed in the Eastleigh by-election after running on a Ukip-style platform. The lesson that Tory modernisers drew was that you can't out-Ukip Ukip (as Lord Ashcroft has repeatedly warned the party). But it is not one that seems have to been applied to South Thanet. With Labour also in contention for the seat, which it held between 1997 and 2005, it is Miliband's party that could benefit if the Tories fail to attract tactical votes. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Euston has to be the most horrible station in London, especially before ten in the morning

So off I go to Birmingham, the city where J G Ballard meets Captain Kirk.

A friend posts an ad for the John Lewis Soft Touch Washable Mattress Topper on a social medium. She doesn’t usually post adverts. “This actually will change your life,” she writes, “in the sense that you will not get out of bed and your muscles will atrophy and you will be penniless.”

I am tempted, I must say. Lately I have simply not been getting out of bed. The trick is to wake up at, say, eight in the morning, and then utilise that early-morning grogginess to go back to sleep. That way you wake up again around noon feeling deranged from the extra-weird dreams you’ve been having. The one where I stole my ex-girlfriend Debbie Milton from Prince Charles, whom she had unwisely married, and escaped with her in a white Rolls-Royce while an enraged Greg Chappell chased after us was quite something. (All details true, promise.)

But Saturday comes and I have to get out of bed because I am off to Birmingham. Why Birmingham? Because I’m being paid to. I am also chairing a talk between Diego Marani, whose most excellent novel New Finnish Grammar I am proud of having introduced to a wider audience than it might have received, and Frank Witzel, a German author of whom I know nothing, but the title of whose prize-winning (untranslated) novel, The Invention of the Red Army Faction By a Manic Depressive Teenager in the Summer of 1969, is suggestive of greatness to follow.

My train is at quarter to ten in the morning. That is horribly early, and it’s from Euston. Euston has to be the most horrible station in London. Crammed with fast-food outlets and shops selling tat, it is a wholly commercialised space, beneath which the trains hulk in confinement on their platforms like trapped beasts. They are also mostly Virgin trains, and bitter experience has taught me that these are unreliable and that one should never, under any circumstances, use their toilets. It’s best to Go before or, at a pinch, to soil oneself. After all, using one more or less amounts to the same thing.

I don’t have much experience of Birmingham, bitter or otherwise. I once gave a talk at Birmingham City University and was distracted by the Ballardian architecture of the place and by an audience member’s beauty, so much so, in the latter case, that I could not speak for a couple of minutes. But my attention is drawn to the fact that the Star Trek convention is taking place at the National Exhibition Centre in the city at the same time, and I think that as my event ends at around three I’ll skip over to the convention and, for a mere £15, have myself photographed on the set of the original Enterprise, sitting in the Captain’s chair.

I would have done anything for Captain James T Kirk when I was a child, and to this day you can catch me, from time to time, punching light switches with the fleshy part of my fist, the way he answers the internal comm-system in the TV series.

But it turns out, I learn from a friend who has had the same idea but actually committed himself to it, that there is a huge entry fee and the queues for the Captain’s chair are “apocalyptic”. So I decide not to go, and ask the hotel staff instead where the nearest decent old man pub is. They steer me in the direction of the Shakespeare round the corner.

This splendid pub huddles amid another Ballardian cityscape of car parks and stunted skyscrapers. The barman is nice, but does not know how to pronounce “Laphroaig”. “I wouldn’t even try,” he says. I teach him. It occurs to me that the whisky in the bottle is probably older than most of the buildings around it.

Why do we do this to cities? The view from my hotel is of a vast building site, behind which the few survivors of Birmingham’s Victorian heritage cluster like exhibits in a freak show: “See the Amazing Buildings Built More Than Twenty Years Ago!!” Still, at least Birmingham Library is, as modern buildings go, rather cool: and then I realise this is because the outside is modelled on the Sam Browne belt worn by Lieutenant Worf in Star Trek: the Next Generation.

I sigh at my nerdiness and take my place on stage. The chair, I decide, is suitably captainesque, and in front of us lies the flag, blue with yellow stars, of another federation, different from the one Gene Roddenberry dreamt of. I remember being excited, as a child, about the future, thinking of the progress we would make as it happened. The desire to go home, and dream, returns.

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 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood