Triumph of UKIP asks tough questions of big three Westminster parties

On the crest of the wave. Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

It is clear from the European and local election results that there are some interesting and fairly nuanced things happening.

Labour has not done as well as it expected to do – and there are a lot of people in the Labour ranks who are beginning to get nervous about Ed Miliband’s leadership with one year to go until the general election. Voters see him as neither strong nor decisive enough. He comes across as a bit of an awkward amateur.

Cameron certainly has more gravitas and looks more comfortable with leadership. With Miliband the big question is whether the Labour Party can afford to ditch him with only 12 months left before the election. They probably won’t.

Cameron is safe, but the big question for the Tories is whether they will be able to win back the support from the right of the party which has migrated to UKIP. Unsurprisingly, UKIP did even better in the European election than in the local council polls, taking 27 per cent of the vote and even managing to pick up a seat in Scotland.

This will put pressure on the Conservatives over what they intend to do about Europe. In turn, the right of the party, the Eurosceptic wing, will put pressure on Cameron. He’s on the record as wanting to campaign for a yes vote in the planned referendum on EU membership, while a lot of his party are quite openly in the no camp. Many of them are now saying an earlier EU referendum than the planned 2017 vote should be sought.

But what the Conservatives have going for them, as we move into general election mode, is the economy. It is recovering and now healthier that the economies of many of the UK’s European partners. Labour has been campaigning hard on austerity and cost of living but that becomes far more difficult to sell when the economy is recovering.

As for the Lib Dems, they won’t be surprised by these results. They will pretend to be disappointed but privately they were expecting to do badly. They will know that in the eyes of a lot of the people who voted for them in 2010, this is payback time for four years of broken promises. In 12 months’ time they are highly likely to be absolutely decimated at the polls – back to 1970s levels when really they had to rebuild from scratch.

People have begun to see them as unprincipled, which is a disaster for their brand. But ever since the 2010 election when there were nearly two weeks of to-ing and fro-ing between Labour and the Conservatives, they have given the impression of a party that has tasted power for the first time and is desperate to hang on to it at all costs.

Of course UKIP will be over the moon about these results. But the question is how will it build on this success to become a proper political force?

Hitherto it has been a two-policy party: focusing on the EU and immigration. They will obviously continue to bang those drums (even more loudly now) in Brussels and Strasbourg. And UKIP spokespeople say that locally they have a whole suite of policies. We’ll now see how strong they are at a local level – and that may prove significant in determining whether they can make a mark in elections to Westminster next year.