If you’re in the sensationalism industry, you’re only as good as your next headline.
And if you’re in the Ukip sensationalism industry, that means headlines of ever-increasing bluster.
Over the past few weeks different newspapers have sequentially ratcheted up the size of Ukip’s ambition. First the party was said to be targeting nine seats at the election. Then they were “looking to win 25 seats”. Then it was 30 seats. Yesterday this rocketed spectacularly to 100.
This latest claim was backed up with a quote from Ukip’s biggest donor Paul Sykes: “Our finances are now rebuilding again after the European election victory but we will be raising significant further funds for a national campaign and a strong push to target marginal seats, probably nearer 100 than the 30-40 we originally identified.”
He added: “You’re going to be able to see this campaign from the moon.”
Such stratospheric levels of expectation are utterly alien to British politics. Ukip has long made the talking up of prospects one of its signature tactics, but to boast of targeting 100 seats is something else. The party has never gone this far before. What will next weekend’s headlines promise: 200? 300? A majority in the House of Commons?
Because the only way is up. Any other direction is not a story. Headlines are no longer guaranteed for Ukip with talk of merely half a dozen gains, even though this is currently the most generous forecast for polling day.
Given Ukip needs publicity more than anything else to survive (yes, even more than by-election victories), herein rests a dilemma. Namely, how the party can reconcile what it might realistically achieve at the election, but which no longer wins newspaper front pages, with what it hasn’t got a hope in hell of achieving, which does.
I’m not sure such an accommodation is possible. The Ukip inflation game feels like it’s already passed the point where logic holds sway. It is now one of the main narratives shaping the election campaign and one in which any kind setback, such as the party’s failure to win any of last week’s council by-elections, commands no influence.
This is why you get the party being tipped to win this Thursday’s by-election for South Yorkshire police and crime commissioner. It’s what prompted Labour MP Frank Field to say there will be “no safe seats” at the general election. And it’s what leads to banner headlines about 100 constituencies being targeted.
So how many seats will Ukip win at the election? All I feel confident about saying at the moment is at least one: Clacton. Douglas Carswell will be re-elected without any difficulty. Beyond that, however, I don’t think it’s possible to speak with authority – at least, not at the time being. Other gains could include Boston & Skegness, Great Yarmouth, Thurrock and Thanet South. Mark Reckless could hold Rochester & Strood, supposing he wins it next month. But I remain hesitant to move any of these into the purple column just yet. When it comes to sizing up Ukip’s current electoral chances, a dose of deflation wouldn’t go amiss.