EASTLEIGH: Farage could’ve won the seat easily. Why didn’t he stand?

Looking at the Don’t Knows in Eastleigh, UKip could still win it. With the leader on the ballot paper, they could’ve walked it.

Last week, an opinion poll showed the Liberal Democrats 5% ahead in the Eastleigh by-election. Two days ago, the Mail on Sunday showed the Conservatives with a lead of 4%. An Ashcroft study then came out yesterday repeating the first result. All were similar studies with similar margins of error – around 4.5% – so the bottom line here is that this looks like it may well be a photo-finish.

With Labour nowhere in the constituency (the Two Eds keeping quiet re that one, and quite right too) you have to ask – as a Tory – whether squeaking in on a recount would be enough to relieve the besieged leader David Cameron. To be honest, whether you were a Tory or a Sutchist, the answer is pretty obviously “No”. The previous MP is in as deep a disgrace as his Party is unpopular, but the Camerlot team can’t even knock the skin off this rice pudding – albeit a brown rice pudding. For the poor voters of Eastleigh, this by-election is largely a tedious study in political mediocrity made worse by an invasion of Big Beasts.

Easily the most beastly of these is The Slog’s temporary target of the yesterday, the truly incorrigible and ghastly Boris Johnson. Writing in his house magazine the Daily Telegraph Monday morning, BoJo remarked that, on the stump there, ”…The first house contained a chap who leapt back in horror and refused even to shake my hand…”. I have never until now seen Eastleigh as my kind of town, but it may be time to revise that opinion.

One suspects that Boris the taxidermist won’t have been over-exerting himself during his stint in the by-election, because he stands to gain more than most from Dave being humiliated there. But one man who, I would’ve thought, did have most of all to gain in Eastleigh is the UKip leader Nigel Farage. Indeed, on the day Chris Huhne suddenly unearthed convincing evidence of his own guilt, I tweeted quite a bit to the effect that Farage should immediately announce his candidature. He did not, and he has not, and therefore I have a right to ask WTF not.

As to why he should’ve stood, it could hardly be more apparent. If he won, those like me who think his leadership utterly risible would be forced to shut up, at least for a bit. It is a southern seat where his cavalry-twill City bonhommie will play well. It is very high profile, and a chance to humiliate both Parties in government at once. But mainly, it has the one thing UKip needs above any other: more cynical electors (dishonest MP/sleaze-ridden Tory Party/banal Labour) than the vast majority of seats.

This has been clearly evidenced in the surveys conducted to date. With a national support level at best just above 12%, only 24% of those polled say they definitely wouldn’t vote UKip. In fact, the Survation poll in the MoS has the Party on 21% – up five points over the fortnight since starter’s orders, and only 7% shy of the leaders. What makes the position really interesting though is if you look at the scores for each Party on the basis of all those who gave an answer including ‘don’t know’: the Tory candidate gets 17.5%, the Libdem 17.1%, and the UKip candidate Diane James a highly creditable 15.7%.

With three professional Party organisations in play here, this is anyone’s election. Think about it: we have around 23% don’t knows at the minute. All Farage’s Army needs to do is persuade one floater in ten to vote UKip, and they’d win – just. I have to say that, with the Leader fighting the seat, you wouldn’t see that as such a big ask.

But Farage isn’t standing there, and so that becomes a bigger task for Ms James. You can watch her pitch on Youtube, which I have to say wasn’t helped by her fluffing the end line with “I need your boot” rather than “your vote”.

However, I’ll stick my neck out here and say she has a real chance...if the organisation behind her is good enough. I wouldn’t call her charismatic, but she has an impressive election-winning record in local government, and is seen by her constituents as a highly effective supporter of small against big. Far from being a Little Englander however, Diane is fluent in French and German, a successful medical entrepreneur opposed to the creeping Hunt bollocks busily screwing the NHS. I don’t easily align myself with UKip, but if I lived in Eastleigh she’d definitely get my vote.

Her task in Eastleigh is to attract the younger voters that have remained so resistant to the charms of Uncle Nigel the Pub Bore on a national level. She has a markedly lower share of supporters aged under 34, but her looks and demeanour could well do her enormous good in that demographic. They will also be the ones most cynical about ‘the system’; unfortunately, in what passes for our culture in 2013, they are also easily the most apathetic.

Nothing would please me more than watching the voters there kick the Coalition in the goolies, and I have to assume that Nigel Farage must have realised this could’ve been his seat for the taking. But he chose to eschew the opportunity. Why?

I have long held the belief – despite the endless denials – that Farage’s real aim is to render the Conservative Party permanently anti-Europe, and thus change the mainstream future of Britain. One suspects the extent of his ambition is to be enough of a nuisance to change the Tory leadership, moving it further to the Right on immigration and more aggressive about seeking new export markets beyond the EU.

To Farage’s credit, the one thing he foresaw to the letter from the day he started UKip is the uncommercial, bloated, controlling and altogether pointless nature of a united Europe run from Brussels. Over the long (and in terms of Parliamentary seats, barren) period of his leadership, just about all the things he predicted have come to pass. Yet with a majority in the UK now in favour of quitting the EU, he has never broken through. He blames an unfair system, but it doesn’t seem to get in the way of George Galloway. In my view, far more significant are the leadership failings of Nigel himself, the numpties he tends have around him, and the shortcomings of an underfunded electoral machine on the ground.

Bug there is something else missing. It was apparent in Buckingham (where Farage did stand, and was hopeless) Rotherham (where the local issue was massive police and local Labour Party lunacy) and it is there in Eastleigh: somehow, when the chips are down, the UKip leader doesn’t go for it.

Not only does this latest by-election have everything Farage needs, losing it would be a disaster for David Cameron. However, the faction ranged against Cameron at the moment find themselves in a politically cleft stick: some of them are gung-ho for change, but older and wiser heads increasingly aren’t. They fear being slaughtered at any General Election following a Camerlot or Coalition meltdown, and they would rather see Cameron’s stern pointing to the bottom following more disasters. A notable minority favour doing nothing beyond letting Camerlot lose the 2015 election, and then re-engineering in Opposition.

It’s highly possible that the UKip leader wants to scare the Tory Right, but without destroying the Party’s electoral chances. Either that, or Farage simply isn’t smart enough to win by-elections. For example, Nick Clegg’s discomfiture at the moment is a gift from Heaven for UKip. I don’t look around me and see Nigel Farage mouthing off about it. Only in the last 24 hours (with two days to go) has he started talking about his Party ‘coming up on the rails’. Last night he wrote at Huffington Post, saying it was ‘time the gag was lifted on straight talking and a real representative voice in politics spoke on behalf of the people’, and boasting that he’d got £100 on UKip to win at 25-1. This is neither new nor impressive, frankly: a leader and an organisation on the ball would know exactly how to drag the UKip candidate across the line ahead by a short head.

Diane James could still win the seat. I doubt she will. I’m sure Nigel Farage could’ve done. He remains a man with a big question mark over his head.

Related: Promise and reality: the Tory failure on EU policy