European election: stakes are high as polls tighten

 
Kate McCann
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It’s not just Ukip leader Nigel Farage’s reputation at stake when the nation goes to the ballot box this week

WHEN the nation goes to the polls this Thursday to vote in the European elections, it won’t just be Nigel Farage nervously awaiting the result.

The Ukip leader is hoping his party can snatch victory from the hands of the Conservatives, having come second last time around. But the other party leaders have their own reasons to feel slightly uneasy.

Interestingly, it’s not David Cameron who will be feeling the most pressure. Instead, Labour’s Ed Miliband will be watching anxiously, hoping that his party has done well enough to come out of the election claiming some kind of victory.

If he can’t, it will form the latest in a series of heavy blows to Miliband’s credibility as leader ahead of the general election; adding fuel to claims that Labour has ignored Ukip for too long in the hope that the party will leech votes from the Conservatives.

Evidence that Ukip support in the north of the country is growing, an area where Labour traditionally picks up votes, has come at the same time as calls from within the party to focus more attention on Ukip, rather than the Lib Dems, reach fever-pitch.

The Lib Dems themselves have long known they are likely to suffer heavy losses, with leader Nick Clegg claiming his stance as the only pro-European in the pack was a calculated political gamble. Yet while Clegg might be content to sit back and wait for the bad news when the results roll in next Sunday night, his party may not be so keen.

Speaking to the BBC’s Andrew Marr yesterday, Clegg said the Lib Dems would remain united no matter what the result.

“Most Liberal Democrats are immensely proud of our resilience and our unity, and that despite the endless breathless predictions that we are seeing again right now we have delivered.”

But the coalition spat between the Tories’ Michael Gove and Lib Dem David Laws in the Department for Education and claims of hissy fits in the wake have served to undermine his steady-hand leadership style. Whispers abound about whether Clegg will lead the party into 2015. EU election annihilation could speed the process along.

Questions are being asked of David Cameron too. Speculation about whether the Tory leader will have the nerve to stick to his message on immigration, rather than swerve off-course in a bid to win back factions of his core vote, is gathering pace. Though the Prime Minister may find it easier than most to brush off EU election defeat, with two recent general election polls putting the Conservatives out in front with months still to go.

And what of Ukip? Farage may be tying himself in knots over claims he is a racist, but the scandal doesn’t seem to have hit his poll ratings much at all.

While pollsters by and large see a vote for Ukip as a protest vote against the main political parties, a wave of practice-run election euphoria could be just what Farage needs to build momentum for the real deal in May next year.

WILL UK BUSINESSES VOTE?
■ In an FTI Consulting poll, 68 per cent of over 6,000 UK businesses said they think EU membership is beneficial to them.

■ 62 per cent of those asked said they felt most of the campaigning about the EU election has been negative, not positive.

■ According to the survey, 77 per cent of business owners will vote, while six per cent definitely won’t.