12/12/2012 07:49 GMT | Updated 10/02/2013 05:12 GMT

Is Ukip Really the UK's Third Party?

Every day there's a new headline about the rise of Ukip. They range from more sober analyses, suggesting that its popularity reflects growing disillusionment with mainstream politics, to the slightly dramatic, which state that Ukip is on course to demolish the Tories at the next election and permanently change the political status quo.

As ever with the British press, it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. Are Ukip really here to stay? Is Farage's popularity ephemeral or based on a genuinely seismic shift in the political attitudes of the British public? With polling data suggesting a consistent level of support comparable to the Liberal Democrats as well as recent electoral successes, these questions are becoming ever more pertinent.

Ukip's sole reason for existence was, at least until very recently, to campaign for the UK to exit the European Union. This sentiment was and continues to be based on the view that we would be better off going it alone than be part of an increasingly sclerotic club of economically stagnating countries.

With the EU still embroiled in political crisis and its democratic legitimacy being questioned more than ever before, we should not be surprised to see anti-EU parties growing in popularity across the region. That's the nature of protest movements, as I argued in my previous post. When the thing you exist to protest against is suddenly detested by the majority, unsurprisingly your movement will benefit.

What makes Ukip's current upward trajectory all the more interesting is its attempts to co-opt itself into the political mainstream, by taking advantage of the Lib Dems abysmal reputation and general mood of 'anti-politics'. This in itself is posing a sort of existential crisis for the party, given that its popularity is in large part based on the British population being fed up with the incumbent government, the case for both the current coalition and the previous Labour establishment. But are there issues other than Europe that are attracting voters to Ukip?

It's the issues that are simultaneously hard to understand but easy to get angry about. Immigration and multiculturalism, notoriously complex subjects and the political equivalents of quicksand, have been adopted as a cause celebre by Ukip. Being hostile to political-correctedness, a slightly fluffy concept, appears to have gained a significant number of votes for Ukip in a recent by-election in Rotherham. The ban on smoking indoors, something that only smokers really seem that bothered about, is regularly wheeled out as a symbol of the over-weaning nanny state, another of Ukip's bugbears.

The factor that unites all these themes is that they are 'anti' something. However political parties can't be successful unless they have a vision of what they would like society to become. It's interesting to see that Ukip have recognised this and are now moulding themselves into the UK's 'libertarian' party. A cursory glance over their manifesto would suggest that there may be still be some contradictions to iron out before they can really lay claim to this accolade.

According to Farage, the deficit must be slashed faster and deeper and yet there's also a promise to dramatically increase defence spending. Another example is a commitment to slash immigration levels, which many would argue is fundamentally incompatible with the ideology of libertarianism. Ukip has always been and, for the foreseeable future at least will continue to be, a party of protest.

The other key element in the story of Ukip's success is its leader, Nigel Farage. Whether you agree with his politics or not, he is a fantastic public speaker. His soundbites are regularly printed all over newspapers, not just in the UK but also across Europe. Indeed his popularity extends far beyond the UK thanks to his ability to speak directly to the concerns of the average European individual. However whether Ukip and, indeed, the political grouping in the European Parliament which he leads would survive without him remains to be seen.

This is not to say that the Conservatives and the Labour Party can ignore Ukip. Far from it, in fact. It could be argued quite compellingly that it's because of Ukip that we have seen the mainstream debate about Europe shift so dramatically towards a referendum even in the past few months. However I'm not yet sure we should be calling time on the Lib Dems as the third party of UK politics. As long as Europe remains the issue of the day, Ukip will remain in the news. However until Farage outlines his vision of what the UK should aspire to become his successes may well be fleeting.