Conservative Home readers, not unreasonably, have voted the rise of Nigel Farage's United Kingdom Independence Party as the big political event of 2012. Certainly, the rise of Ukip has sent tremors through the political establishment. It has however been entirely predictable. Nick Clegg's decision to lead the Liberal Democrats on a kamikaze-run into government opened up a natural space for a new 'party of protest' to make a name for itself on the British political scene.
However, despite its advances, Ukip still has serious obstacles to overcome. It has yet to make a breakthrough at Westminster level and their is no sign it yet has the on-the-ground structures in place to translate defuse polling support into a breakthrough of this kind. Despite it routinely performing well in European elections however it has yet to make a serious impression in local government elections and a strong solid base of councillors are bread and butter for a political party wanting to build from the bottom-up.
Although it has been gaining in terms of publicity and exposure, that means scrutiny will increase of Ukip's actual policies. On some issues it no doubt is able to chime with popular sentiment, on Europe and on immigration, for example. However, on social issues like gay marriage all the indications are that it is out-of-step with mainstream opinion. Also, on the key issue for any political party, that of austerity and the economy, it finds itself siding with swivel-eyed fundamentalists on the Conservative right who want to go 'further, faster'.
This is hardly likely to chime with a popular mood that is increasingly unconvinced about the whole austerity agenda and will indeed compromise UKIP in the eyes of those who want to protest against establishment orthodoxy. Here at least, it is likely to lose out to Labour, which despite its incoherence is fumbling towards something approaching a coherent critique of at least elements of the austerity agenda. This is obviously a serious handicap for UKIP because the dictum 'It's the economy, stupid' holds even more true in a political climate where economic crisis is the main news item day-after-day and the number of voters who will be convinced by it's 'Blame Europe' mantra is small. Most voters are more savvy than that, even the ones who want out of the EU.
Despite its handicaps however, UKIP is likely to perform well in 2013 by pure dint of being the natural choice of the growing army of voters who are firmly in the 'None of the Above' camp. As it gains in public exposure people will increasingly see it as a vote worth casting, one that gives a clear two-fingered salute to the Westminster village; therefore, the more UKIP is demonised by mainstream politicians, the stronger it will become. A serious strategy to beat UKIP involves promoting scrutiny of its actual policies - as opposed to the one the Prime Minister pursued when he called UKIP a bunch of 'fruitcakes and loonies'. Indeed, if that is the only response mainstream politics can come up with to the questions posed by UKIP and its ascendency then the danger is it may not be long before the 'lunatics' mount a credible bid to take over the asylum.