Ukip leaders present and future? Photo: Bloomberg
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Suzanne Evans, Ukip's leader-in waiting

The Nicola Sturgeon to Nigel Farage's Alex Salmond?

Nigel Farage’s political career could end next week: a new poll puts him two points behind in Thanet South. Should he lose, he has declared that he will quit as leader of Ukip.

If he is true to his word, a vicious scrap to succeed him will ensue. Two senior party figures, Steven Woolfe and Paul Nuttall, have already revealed that they would like to be next leader. Farage, though, has a different view: he has repeatedly said that he expects Ukip’s next leader to be a woman and, in asking Suzanne Evans to write the party manifesto and then handing her the stage at the launch he has effectively anointed her his preferred successor. Perhaps he see Evans as the Nicola Sturgeon to his Alex Salmond: less threatening and more mild-manner and better able to reach out beyond the party’s core vote.

“If Nigel ever stood down, I think there would be quite a lot of people that might be interested in being leader and yeah I’ll be honest - I might be one of them,” Evans tells me when me meet near Ukip HQ in London. But she later says: “It's not something I’m ready for - he's going to stay and he's going to win.” In the early hours of May 8, we will find out.

The success of Ukip’s manifesto – a document that could hardly be further removed from what Nigel Farage called the “drivel” in 2010 – is one reason that Evans is ideally placed to become next leader. At the start of January, Evans took over manifesto-writing duties from Tim Aker – who claimed to be too stretched as an MEP, councillor and candidate for eminently winnable Thurrock – and was handed a five-month contract by Ukip. 

“I knew it was going to be a big task, but I don’t think I anticipated just how big it was going to be.” Nor did she anticipate that her e-mail inbox would be flooded “like confetti” with suggestions, including that sending prisoners to North Korea could end the prison crisis. “That did not come from a Ukip supporter." Not all suggestions were so unwelcome: the manifesto proposes instruction in Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation in all secondary schools after Evans followed up on an idea from a 14-year-old girl.

Farage was consulted at every turn, and retained control of the process. “There were a couple of things he said he didn't agree with that came out.

“Nigel and I kept in close contact. We had a couple of meetings as it was in progress. If there was something I wasn't sure about, I'd phone him; something he particularly wanted in - he'd phone me.”

Within hours of the launch, Evans found that she had produced a document that – even by those who vehemently disagreed with it – had avoided ridicule. It attracted praise from both the Daily Mirror and Daily Mail. “I was like wow - I think that’s called a result. Praise from the left and praise from the right!”

Not bad for someone who had only joined Ukip two years earlier, when Evans and a group of Conservative Party councillors in Wimbledon defected. “It’s amazing isn't it really? I feel very flattered that the party's recognised that I’ve got something to offer.” Many now consider her the second most important person in Ukip, a notion she calls “frightening”.

Evans shows no inclination to diverge from the Farage line. Although she is a former employer and presenter for BBC Radio 4 and 5 Live, she endorses Farage’s denunciation of the corporation, calling it “so unfair and so unbalanced” in its coverage of Ukip. It is not her only target.

“The London media gives us such a hard time as well. Every time I open the Metro or the Evening Standard it's all anti-Ukip, constantly anti-Ukip. They only run the bad stories and their facts are hopeless - they called me deputy leader Suzanne Jones the other day in the Metro. They just don't do their facts, they don't do their homework, it's all anti stuff, they don't do any policies, they've done nothing positive on our manifesto.”

She suggests the media in London is one reason why Ukip performs so poorly in the capital. “London is very good at self-censoring,” she says, denouncing the audience’s treatment of her on This Week the previous night. It is the first time Evans hints at losing her sense of self-control.

“That London audience last night - 'Oh you're not allowed to vote for Ukip. The papers tell me that Ukip's not very nice therefore I must boo when Suzanne Evans walks on stage regardless of what she says, that's unimportant. Regardless of what Ukip policies really are I must not be seen to be voting for something that according to my liberal metropolitan elite friends is not very nice’.”

The ‘liberal metropolitan elite’ certainly didn’t approve of Farage’s comment that he preferred immigrants from India and Australia to those from Eastern Europe. Evans does not disagree with her leader. “I used to joke sometimes particularly with some of my Hindu friends, and I'd say 'sometimes you're more British than I am in terms of your attitudes and ambitions and also love for the English language and love for the country'. So I think we do actually have through the Commonwealth a common culture.”

Evans also agrees with her boss that Britain should give priority to Christian refugees. “There's nowhere else for them to go,” she says. She advocates taking “one thousand, two thousand” refugees a year from those fleeing across the Mediterranean, though she is unconvinced that all those who make the hazardous trip do so for well-intentioned reasons, quoting a friend who came on a boat from Albania 20 years ago.

“He says: 'I know six out of ten people on those boats are people who are economic migrants get on those boats they take their luck, whether rightly or wrongly they have been sold a vision that they will get across, and I know that they are coming over with criminal intent' - that's him saying that not me, someone who has actually been on a boat.”

But her main focus is on the election; Evans is dividing her time between Shrewsbury and Atcham, where she is standing for Parliament, albeit in a seat that does not rank among Ukip’s targets, and media studios in London. “I’m probably most use for the party there.”

Evans repeats her previous prediction that Ukip will win eight seats, and “at least 100 second places.”

“That will be fantastic and I think we will do that. People will see that we're a real challenger and then it’s 2020, when I think we could realistically be the opposition.”

But whatever happens next week, Evans intends for the electorate to see plenty more of her in  the coming years. “I’m loving it. I’m certainly not going to leave politics,” she says. “I think I’m fairly good at it - people seem to think I am." Farage certainly agrees.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

Photo: Getty
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How a small tax rise exposed the SNP's anti-austerity talk for just that

The SNP refuse to use their extra powers to lessen austerity, says Kezia Dugdale.

"We will demand an alternative to slash and burn austerity."

With those few words, Nicola Sturgeon sought to reassure the people of England, Wales and Northern Ireland last year that the SNP were a party opposed to public spending cuts. We all remember the general election TV debates, where the First Minister built her celebrity as the leader of the anti-austerity cause.

Last week, though, she was found out. When faced with the choice between using the powers of the Scottish Parliament to invest in the future or imposing cuts to our schools, Nicola Sturgeon chose cuts. Incredible as it sounds the SNP stood shoulder to shoulder with the Tories to vote for hundreds of millions of pounds worth of cuts to schools and other vital public services, rather than asking people to pay a little bit more to invest. That's not the choice of an anti-austerity pin-up. It's a sell-out.

People living outside of Scotland may not be fully aware of the significant shift that has taken place in politics north of the border in the last week. The days of grievance and blaming someone else for decisions made in Scotland appear to be coming to an end.

The SNP's budget is currently making its way through the Scottish Parliament. It will impose hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts to local public services - including our schools. We don't know what cuts the SNP are planning for future years because they are only presenting a one year budget to get them through the election, but we know from the experts that the biggest cuts are likely to come in 2017/18 and 2018/19. For unprotected budgets like education that could mean cuts of 16 per cent.

It doesn't have to be this way, though. The Scottish Parliament has the power to stop these cuts, if only we have the political will to act. Last week I did just that.

I set out a plan, using the new powers we have today, to set a Scottish rate of income tax 1p higher than that set by George Osborne. This would raise an extra half a billion pounds, giving us the chance to stop the cuts to education and other services. Labour would protect education funding in real terms over the next five years in Scotland. Faced with the choice of asking people to pay a little bit more to invest or carrying on with the SNP's cuts, the choice was pretty simple for me - I won't support cuts to our nation’s future prosperity.

Being told by commentators across the political spectrum that my plan is bold should normally set alarm bells ringing. Bold is usually code for saying something unpopular. In reality, it's pretty simple - how can I say I am against cuts but refuse to use the powers we have to stop them?

Experts - including Professors David Bell and David Eiser of the University of Stirling; the Resolution Foundation; and IPPR Scotland - have said our plan is fair because the wealthiest few would pay the most. Trade unions have backed our proposal, because they recognise the damage hundreds of millions of pounds of cuts will do to our schools and the jobs it will cost.

Council leaders have said our plan to pay £100 cashback to low income taxpayers - including pensioners - to ensure they benefit from this plan is workable.

The silliest of all the SNP's objections is that they won't back our plan because the poorest shouldn't have to pay the price of Tory austerity. The idea that imposing hundreds of millions of pounds of spending cuts on our schools and public services won't make the poorest pay is risible. It's not just the poorest who will lose out from cuts to education. Every single family and business in Scotland would benefit from having a world class education system that gives our young the skills they need to make their way in the world.

The next time we hear Nicola Sturgeon talk up her anti-austerity credentials, people should remember how she did nothing when she had the chance to end austerity. Until now it may have been acceptable to say you are opposed to spending cuts but doing nothing to stop them. Those days are rapidly coming to a close. It makes for the most important, and most interesting, election we’ve had in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is leader of Scottish Labour.