One of the most ill-informed comments I’ve heard from a politician in recent months came courtesy of the Labour MP Frank Field. In the aftermath of the Heywood & Middleton by-election, he inferred that, thanks to Ukip, there was now no longer such a thing as a safe Labour seat. “All bets are off,” he concluded.
It was a spectacular over-reaction. It was wrong then and is wrong now. But it sums up pointedly the strain of Ukip fever that last autumn was coursing through strands of the media and parts of Westminster. Remember the headlines talking up the party’s chances of winning 25 seats, then 30, then even 100?
Nigel Farage was still at it just last month, when he popped up on ITV’s Loose Women to announce that Ukip would win at least 10 seats at the election.
I’ve yet to see a single forecast of the result anywhere online or in the media that suggests Ukip is going to win even half that number. The Guardian is currently predicting a total of three, though it doesn’t say what they are. May2015.com also says three, listing them as Clacton, Thurrock and Rochester & Strood. ElectionsEtc.com says four. ElectionForecast.co.uk suggests just one: Clacton.
Rochester & Strood was always likely to be an intriguing contest, thanks to the slim majority Mark Reckless achieved in last November’s by-election. A new poll from Lord Ashcroft implies the Tories are ahead at the moment, though their seven-point lead drops to just three when respondents are asked to think about their own constituency and the candidates standing there.
Thurrock, by contrast, looks like it could be a Ukip gain, with Ashcroft’s latest poll giving the party a four-point lead over Labour – though the three main parties are all within five points of each other.
Add in Clacton, which Ukip are almost certainly bound to hold, and Thanet South, where different polls have suggested either a three-way race or an easy win for Nigel Farage, and you’ve the apparent extent of Ukip’s ambition in this election: four seats at most, two seats at least.
I say “apparent” extent, because there’s always the chance of a couple of surprises. But even then I doubt the party will get into double figures, as per Farage’s forecast of last month.
Where the party could well have more of an impact is in those seats not where it is likely to come first but second or even third. How many Conservative seats will fall to Labour thanks to Ukip splitting the Tory vote? How many Labour seats will become Labour-Ukip marginals, with Farage’s party displacing the Tories as the main opposition?
Ukip’s failure to translate its supposed momentum of last year into a serious challenge for power this year has to be one of the most significant political stories of the last 12 months. I’m not saying it won’t happen at some point in the future. I am saying it was widely expected to have happened by now, and it hasn’t.