POLITICS

Tories Hope To Decapitate Ukip Snake As Nigel Farage's Battle For South Thanet Hots Up

16/01/2015 10:59 GMT | Updated 19/01/2015 15:59 GMT
Mary Turner via Getty Images
RAMSGATE, ENGLAND - AUGUST 26: Nigel Farage walks to the stage to speak to a packed hall of supporters after winning the Thanet Hustings to select the Prospective Parliamentary Candidate for the Kent Constituency on August 26, 2014 at The Odd Fellows Hall in Ramsgate, England. Nigel Farage beat four other candidates for the position and spoke to a packed hall about his plans to regenerate the area and his hopes of becoming Ukip's first MP. (Photo by Mary Turner/Getty Images)

The Conservatives believe they can decapitate the Ukip "snake" by stopping Nigel Farage in his bid for Parliament next May as prospective MP for South Thanet.

Ukip is hoping to secure a flock of MPs at the next general election, but doubts have been raised about the strength of Farage's electoral support in the seat after recent polling by Tory peer Lord Ashcroft found that he was five points behind the Conservative candidate.

"Wouldn't it be great if we won?" a Tory MP pondered excitedly to HuffPost UK, "It'd cut the head right off the snake!"

Farage's team bristle in response to such venomous talk, with a Ukip source remarking that it "sounds like the negative sort of campaign they want to run, while we are campaigning on positive issues".

However, Lord Ashcroft's polling, carried out last November, suggests the Tories are gaining momentum after a survey by Survation a year earlier found that Ukip was in second place (30%) to Labour (34%), with the Tories trailing twolo points behind (28%).

Questions have also been raised about how much time Farage, 50, has spent out in South Thanet, since been selected as Ukip's parliamentary candidate in August.

Conservative sources tell HuffPost UK that since being selected as Ukip's candidate for the Kent seat in August, Farage has only turned up in the constituency, which includes the towns of Ramsgate, Margate and Broadstairs, three times to campaign.

Tory candidate Craig Mackinlay, a Medway councillor, quipped: "I'm on the streets of Thanet in a week more than Nigel has been since August."

mackinlayinthanet Mackinlay on the campaign trail

Ukip scoffs at such accusations, with a spokesman telling HuffPost UK that Farage has been to the constituency "far more" than three times, adding: "It's just that they are not all press events, but private meetings with local people."

A source close to Farage goes further, saying that the Ukip leader is "practically living" in the constituency, campaigning in the Kent seat "whenever he does not have to be in the European parliament".

Farage is also facing a challenge from comedian Al Murray, who is pledging to stand there as his Pub Landlord character under the Free United Kingdom Party (FUKP) banner.

Labour has fielded Will Scobie as its candidate, the Greens have Ian Driver, and the Liberal Democrats have Russ Timpson. The Tories are relying on Mackinlay, who despite being a former leader of Ukip and founding member of the party, insists that he will not try to "out-Ukip Ukip".

Mackinlay, who joined the Tories in 2005, argues that his Ukip past is an asset in his campaign to fight Farage, styling himself as a "traditional Conservative" who can make disaffected Tories "feel happy to come back home".

However, polls suggest voters trust Ukip most on issues like Europe and immigration, while the Tories are most trusted to deal with the deficit and manage the economy well.

Mackinlay says that he has a "whole spectrum of messages" to sell on the doorstep, but admits unsurprisingly that his "primary message" is on the economy - the Tories' strong suit.

Pressed, he admits that immigration does feature on his leaflets. "It's an issue that people do mention, there's no point in ignoring it," he adds, before reverting back to the Tories' favourite topic. "We will out-do any other party on our record of the economy."

Ukip are feeling optimistic as they performed strongly in Kent in last year's European elections, topping the poll across the Thanet District Council area with 16,492 votes, more than double the votes cast for the second-placed Tories.

The fight has been played out on a larger scale on Kent County Council, which although the Tories control with 44 of the 84 seats, has an official Ukip opposition, who have 17 seats.

The Eurosceptic party is hoping South Thanet voters would flock to Farage after being represented by Conservative MP Laura Sandys, a leading europhile, who is stepping down.

Farage has an uphill struggle as Sandys won for the Tories with a majority of nearly 8,000 in 2010 over Labour, securing 22,043 votes, nearly half of those cast. By contrast, Ukip won just 2,529 votes, just over 5% of those cast.

Since 1983, when the South Thanet seat was first created, it has always been held by the party that has formed the government of the day. While he has no hope of occupying No 10, electoral success for Ukip could see him play a role in coalition negotiations in the event of a hung parliament. When Sandys secured the seat, she ousted Labour former minister Stephen Ladyman, who had held the seat since Tony Blair's 1997 landslide.

farage thanet

Farage celebrates in Thanet after becoming the local Ukip candidate

Farage hopes to use victory in South Thanet, which has a reputation as an electoral bellwether, as a signal that Ukip has arrived as a credible force in Westminster politics.

However, the Tories remain hopeful as Farage has himself stood for South Thanet before in 2005, and failed, finishing fourth with just 2,079 votes.

Failure in South Thanet will be politically dangerous for Farage, as others are waiting in the wings like deputy leader Paul Nuttall, who told the New Statesman that he thought he "could" lead the party.

Farage's appearances have been known to be accompanied by a media whirlwind as cameras and press follow in his wake, like the Kevin Hull, a producer of Channel Four’s Benefits Street, who is filming a documentary about the Thanet campaign.

One of Farage's most public appearances in the constituency was when he starred on a Channel 4 show where he met Steph and Dom Parker, owners of a local guesthouse and stars of the reality show Gogglebox.

In what has been described as a "rip-roaring alcohol-fuelled watch", Farage drank champagne with the reality TV stars, spoke about his family, his career and lamented that he was the "poorest man in politics".

Such tactics have apparently raised eyebrows. "Nigel doesn't seem to be doing what I'd call "normal" campaigning on the streets," says Mackinlay.

"It is being recognised that on the street - people say 'Oh he's never here'. He expects to breeze in and use South Thanet as a bit of a ladder up the pole really."

Ukip dismiss such claims, with a spokesman telling HuffPost UK: "I guess that Mr Mackinlay should get out a little bit more, Nigel's lack of "obvious" support managed to get seven out of the eight Kent County Councillors in Thanet elected."

However, Ukip will undoubtedly need to ramp up their campaign efforts as May nears to ensure Farage wins South Thanet, as their opponents will be energised by the prospect of foiling the Ukip leader's sixth parliamentary bid.

"We've knocked on literally thousands and thousands of doors and there is not obvious support for Nigel down here," Mackinlay boasts.

A source close to Farage pours scorn on the Tory candidate's claims: "Mr Mackinlay must be campaigning in the wrong constituency then because the response we have had has been overwhelming."

"When we've been walking on the streets, the word is 'selfie-mania'!"

As the general election nears, Mackinlay and Farage have already faced off at public hustings with the other candidates.

However, the Ukip leader's opponents still accuse him of being "too busy" for the locals he is vying to represent, attacking him for not spending enough time in the area.

The polls suggest that the Tories are ahead in South Thanet, but the bookies are tipping Farage to win.

After his selection, the Ukip leader told his party faithful that he predicted opposition parties would now send their "heavy artillery" to scupper his hopes of securing the South Thanet seat.

Farage asked his members to help him form a "Thanet Army", adding: "We have got to get people to do their bit."

Clearly every Ukip foot-soldier will be needed to help their general win.

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