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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. 

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.
Nigel Farage during the Newark by-election count. Photograph: Getty Images.

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.