All political parties have plenty to lose in the run up to the EU referendum, but none more so than Ukip. Looking at the polls you wouldn't have guessed it. Nigel Farage's corner well and truly have the momentum, over the past six months the tide has turned in favour of those wanting to leave. The most recent contributions from pollsters all suggest that if the vote was tomorrow it would probably be too close to call.
What affect would the result have on Britain's biggest party in Europe? A party that won more almost four million votes last May, more than the SNP and Lib Dems combined. It's a tricky question to answer, the debate is dominated by dozens of hypothetical questions and potential outcomes from the prime minister's renegotiation. All things considered though, it's difficult to see how Ukip could emerge from this particular battle unscathed. And that has very real ramifications for the face of British politics for the last three years of this current Government.
Take a simple decision to remain in the EU, under the same terms as today. Such a result would represent a catastrophic failure for the Ukip machine. For a party thats key narrative is so closely intertwined with complete withdrawal, failure to deliver change won't sit well with those that voted purple in May. Under this scenario, an already boisterous party risks being consumed by aggressive finger pointing and defections. With no further referendum on the horizon, voters might look to place their trust in a safe pair of hands for the time being, floating back to the Tories in particular.
Should the prime minister return from Brussels with some chunky wins - and we're expecting detail on those demands this month - the party could be threatened too. Tougher stances on immigration and the curbing of benefits for newcomers will play well with Ukip's electorate. Both are issues they actually care more about than withdrawal from the EU. It all depends on the settlement, but in many areas Farage's proposition to the electorate might simply be negated. Take the UK's current subscription to "ever closer union", clearly in No 10's crosshairs. If such a move is signed off by Brussels Farage's narrative about an EU super state will fall on flat ears.
If the public chooses the exit door there are inevitable problems for the party too, despite the likely backslapping amongst the party leadership. They'll lose 22 MEPs and with it their primary vehicle for training future leaders and disseminating their message. While evidently the lot of them would rather be based in Westminster, it's difficult to argue that having a permanent base in Brussels hasn't professionalized the upper echelons of the party to a considerable degree. Most will have little prospect of making it to Parliament without concentrated pockets of support. This was a picture painted vividly for us at the General Election, Ukip's best hope to date for entering the Commons. The elected party would be a shadow of its former self, with one seat in the House and under 2.5% of positions in local government.
Invariably, comparisons will be drawn with the Scottish Nationalists' experience after the referendum last year. It's something Farage himself alluded to a week before the General Election, describing the "remarkable heights" the party rose to after its bruising defeat at the referendum. It's easy to see his logic. Nicola Sturgeon's party looks in fine fettle and ready to secure another majority at Holyrood next May.
Ukip's top team will want to learn lessons from the SNP, a party that achieved its biggest electoral success only a year after its biggest disappointment. A party that won more seats in 2015 than the rest of the general elections it had previously contested combined. Part of the lesson there is moving across from a single issue platform and pushing other leaders firmly into the limelight, both especially difficult during this particular campaign. It's an uphill struggle more challenging than the task faced by the SNP, the nationalists had a solid foothold in Scottish politics in 2014 and the public recognized their broad range of policies.
Just as the Scottish result changed the face of British politics, so too will the vote in 2017. As we sail towards a particularly turbulent year, party heavyweights on all sides of the House will want to batten down the hatches and hold tight. Ukip have the most to lose, but for their leader, who has spent his life campaigning for withdrawal, I doubt the survival of the party is even his top priority right now.Suggest a correction