Having marched his troops to the top of the hill, Nigel Farage has just marched them down back down again. After stoking speculation that he would stand in the Newark by-election by boasting last night that David Cameron would have to resign if he won, the Ukip leader has just told the BBC that he won’t be running after all. He said outside his home in Bath:
It was only 12 hours ago that Patrick Mercer stood down, so I haven’t had long to think about it, but I have thought about it, and we’re just over three weeks away from a European election at which I think Ukip could cause an earthquake in British politics, from which we can go on and win not just one parliamentary seat but quite a lot of parliamentary seats.
For that reason, I don’t want to do anything that deflects from the European election campaign, so I’m not going to stand in this by-election.
I want to focus the next three weeks on winning the European elections and also I don’t have any links with the East Midlands. I would just look like an opportunist, and I don’t think that would work.
Were he being honest, Farage would have admitted that there was one big reason why he chose not to stand: he feared he would lose. The Tories currently enjoy a majority of 16,152 in Newark and a lead of 25,636 over Ukip (which polled 3.8 per cent in 2010). Even with the momentum that would follow victory in the European elections, overcoming that deficit would have been a daunting challenge. Ukip briefed this morning that it fears the elderly, middle-class Conservative vote is “solid”, and it is almost certainly right.
Farage made the right call. But having allowed, and even encouraged, speculation to run out of control, he has been unavoidably damaged this morning. There was no need for him to boast that he was powerful enough to topple Cameron, or to declare that winning a Westminster seat would “transform the landscape” for Ukip. He could simply have told reporters that he would “sleep on it” and decide in the morning.
Farage may well still lead Ukip to a remarkable victory on 22 May (indeed, the polls suggest he is almost certain to). But right now the politician he most resembles is Gordon Brown after the election that never was in 2007. For the first time in weeks, Ukip’s momentum has stalled.