It is less than two months since UKIP’s remarkable breakthrough in May’s local elections, yet as pictures of triumphant British sportsman have replaced those of a grinning, pint-wielding Nigel Farage on the front pages, commentators have pounced on a dip in support to declare the party (pub lock-in?) over.
“UKIP support fallen by third” declared the Daily Telegraph on June 12, prompting columnist and blogger Iain Martin to ask, “Is UKIP being flushed down the toilet of history”. He concluded that it isn’t, but argued that sufficient former Tories could be won back over coming months to force UKIP “back into single figures”.
Has the public fallen out of love with Nigel Farage and his Eurosceptic rebels? The table below provides some useful perspective, comparing the latest polls from each of Britain’s polling companies with those conducted after the May elections.
Heading for the toilet of history?
UKIP’s support is down with all the pollsters, but not by much: on average, the party has lost 2 percentage points and is still well above the support levels it was achieving at the start of 2013. I agree with Iain that it is a bit early to be talking about the toilet of history.
Nevertheless, this is the first fall back in UKIP support for many months, coming after a long, record-breaking surge. Why has the party lost a little of its lustre? The most obvious explanation is that the figures in May were artificially high, reflecting a huge dose of mostly positive media attention for Nigel Farage and his party.
For a while, UKIP were the media’s shiny new thing, and it seemed you could not pick up a newspaper or turn on a television without being greeted by the broad smile of Nigel, complete with beer and pinstripe suit. The news agenda has moved on, as it always does, and the polling reflects this, as polls conducted a long way out from elections are swayed to some extent by the news people are hearing day to day. If Andy Murray had a political party it would be doing rather well right now.
A related factor which has most likely hurt UKIP a little is the relative fall in media attention on issues which benefit the party - in particular stories about the EU, immigration or the corruption of the political class. The British media is in an atypically upbeat mood, buoyed by a hot summer, a string of sporting triumphs and now a royal baby. Even the conventional news agenda has perked up a little, with a series of, by recent standards, rather positive economic statistics.
This is a harsh environment for the party whose strongest support comes from those who think Britain is going to hell in a handcart.
They’ll be back
Is the recent fall-back in UKIP support a blip or the start of a longer slump? Prediction is a hazardous pursuit in politics, but there are a couple of strong reasons to expect UKIP to rebound as we move in to 2014. Firstly, transitional controls on migration from Romania and Bulgaria are lifted on January 1 and it is a racing certainty that this policy shift will be accompanied by a new wave of negative media about migration from these two countries.
As this is a story which encompasses both of UKIP’s big policy issues - immigration and the EU - Farage’s party is likely to benefit. Then in late May 2014 we have the European Parliament election, which has traditionally been UKIP’s big home fixture in electoral politics. The party is sure to get a big wave of attention once again as polling day approaches and the Westminster class speculate about how well UKIP will do, and who they will harm.
The recent fallback in UKIP support has been accompanied by a boost in Conservative poll shares, and an improvement in Tory mood. Some in Cameron’s party see the first evidence of a shift of UKIPers back to their party, with a few crediting the more socially conservative, hard-hitting approach of Lynton Crosby. It is too soon to draw such conclusions. UKIP supporters are in many respects not traditional Conservatives - they are more working class and more disaffected from mainstream politics than typical Tory voters.
Winning and holding support from this group will not be easy for the Tories, particularly when the summer sun and smiling royals fade and the political agenda returns to its usual mix of scandal and conflict.
Yet Labour have plenty to worry about too - the disaffected working-class vote Farage has tapped into is one the party badly needs to build a stable, majority-winning coalition. Nigel Farage, like many Brits, has suffered a little in the summer heat. But the remarkable story of his party has many chapters left in it yet.